Texas incarcerates more of its residents than any other state. Most of them are people of color. In Houston, Tarsha Jackson, an organizer with the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, is the go-to criminal justice person in her community. When she isn’t organizing “black-brown unity meetings,” she has an informal, full-time job helping families who have nowhere else to turn.
“I get calls about food, clothes, housing, calls from parents of kids who’ve been charged with murder, and they don’t know what to do,” she says. “I get on the phone and refer that person. I can’t turn those calls away.”
She knows what those families are going through. In 2003, Jackson’s 11-year-old, mentally ill son was sentenced to three years in the Texas Youth Commission for breaking a window at a neighborhood pool. “The court-appointed attorneys didn’t explain anything,” she recalls. “They told me, ‘Your son is a menace.’”
The judicial system changed the court date without informing her, and she was not at her son’s trial. She was infuriated, but felt powerless. While in custody, her son was sexually abused by another child and then physically abused by guards, Jackson says. “I started going to the courthouse and passing out fliers, saying if you cannot afford an attorney, get another opinion. I did my own rallies on parent awareness of the juvenile justice system. I didn’t want other parents to have to go through what I did,” she says.
Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says Jackson is unique. There are “a lot of people who have been impacted personally by the criminal justice system,” Correa says. “Very few become activists. She utilized a horrible trauma to advocate for others.”
Jackson began volunteering with organizations like ACORN and the American Civil Liberties Union. She became the parent representative for the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles and started speaking at events. As leader of Texas Parents of Incarcerated Youth, Jackson went into juvenile facilities on visiting days to talk to parents.
Now Jackson works with Grassroots Leadership to bring Latinos and African Americans together to work on issues that affect both communities, such as racial profiling and over-representation in the criminal-justice system. Nationwide, 65 percent of the incarcerated adult population is black or Hispanic, according to 2008 Justice Department statistics. Minority groups need to work together, Jackson says, but that’s not always easy. “Working on these issues together, it strengthens our relationship,” she says. “It shows we’re all affected.”