Paducah native launches nonprofit aimed at amplifying voices of formerly incarcerated people
A Paducah native whose life was shaped by mass incarceration is working to amplify the voices of formerly incarcerated Kentuckians through civic participation and community organizing.
When Marcus Jackson was 19, he was arrested and imprisoned for second-degree assault and wanton endangerment, crimes he maintains he didn’t commit.
The nearly three-decade stretch that followed his first charges saw him go in and out of prison another two times, with both sentences for nonviolent drug charges enhanced by Kentucky’s Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) law.
Jackson, who was a scholarship football player at the University of Louisville before going to prison, said the experience “changed the trajectory” of his young life.
“The collateral consequences of that conviction prevented me from doing or pursuing the dreams that I always had,” he said. “It took me every bit of two decades to come out from under that stigma and that mental stigma within myself, to really feel empowered enough to be accepted. I just felt like I didn't matter if you could throw me away.”
Since getting out of prison in 2019, Jackson has worked for the Louisville Urban League and the ACLU of Kentucky, where he helped to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people and get them back on the voter rolls. He also began organizing to change Kentucky’s PFO law, a journey documented in a 2022 Independent Lens documentary on Jackson that explores the further impacts it’s had on his life.
“A lot of us were the ones who caused the harm in the communities. Who better to change that than us?”
Now living in Frankfort, Jackson’s looking to continue and build on that work with ABLE (Advocacy Based on Lived Experience) – his new nonprofit group launched this earlier month. Jackson, the group’s founder and executive director, wants ABLE to “put a face to these narratives and issues” faced by people directly impacted by incarceration.
Jackson said ABLE will “promote healthy civic participation for the betterment of people and communities” through education, mobilization and organization.
“If I can just prevent one person from going through that or even if you've been through it, to help you overcome it and not to return. I feel like my work is done,” Jackson said. “It’s just about making our communities better and it has to be done by us, because a lot of us were the ones who caused the harm in the communities. Who better to change that than us?”
Jackson’s organizing origin story starts in Kentucky State Penitentiary, where he authored a bill to amend Kentucky’s PFO law in his cell. Kentucky Rep. Brandon Storm, a Republican from Laurel County, brought Jackson’s bill before the General Assembly in 2022 and again in 2023. Both versions called for nonviolent offenders to be eligible for parole and prohibit drug possession charges from counting as prior felonies toward PFO enhancements.
“It meant the world to me, it was so empowering,” Jackson said. “Even though it didn't pass, it still helped me understand that it was possible to do something other than what I had been doing and that there are people out here that are willing to look past the past and see me for the person I am today.”
An executive order signed by Gov. Andy Beshear in 2019, the same year Jackson was released from prison, restored voting rights to more than 175,000 Kentuckians with past convictions and completed sentences. Jackson – one of the 200,000 individuals not impacted by the executive order – said one of ABLE’s main focuses will be registering formerly incarcerated people to vote and helping those who need to petition complete that process.
“Some of those individuals weren't charged as violent offenders and they are still impacted and forced to go through the petitioning process to have their rights restored,” he said. “A lot of our efforts are going to focus on raising awareness of the executive order because there's a large population of people that still do not know that their rights have been restored, and that the only thing that they need to do to reclaim those rights is to register to vote.”
During ABLE’s first two years, Jackson plans to register 15,000 formerly incarcerated Kentuckians to vote and collect 5,000 pledges to vote from those impacted Kentuckians with newly restored voting rights. He wants to plan for the future by analyzing and collecting data and advocating in the hopes of ensuring the passage of legislation that restores rights to formerly incarcerated people more permanently.
“Currently we have the executive order, but a new governor can change that with the stroke of a pen,” Jackson said. “We have to amend section 145 of Kentucky’s constitution in order to assure that people do not lose their rights to vote after they have completed their sentence.”
Kentucky has an incarceration rate of 1,102 per 100,000 residents across all kinds of confinement, according to the most recent data from the Prison Policy Initiative – a nonprofit research group that aims to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and advocate for a more just society.
Alicia Hurle is the executive director for the Kentucky Civic Engagement Table, an organization that works to coordinate, support and link grassroots movements calling for more equity in the state. KCET is the fiscal sponsor of ABLE. Hurle said ABLE has an opportunity to “fill a huge gap” when it comes to community organizing in Kentucky, a state that incarcerates people at a rate higher than any democracy in the world.
“We definitely have an issue with locking people up at a rate that is just exorbitant,” Hurle said. “Folks like Marcus, and the folks that he'll be organizing with, they've seen the worst of our systems…they've experienced so much harm from the system of incarceration and so I think a lot of times they're able to see unintended consequences of some of the policies that groups lift up.”
Jackson hopes to inform and educate thousands of people on long-term solutions related to prison and voter reform. He also wants to educate Kentuckians so that people who serve on juries “will make better and more informed decisions” when it comes to sentencing and imprisonment.
“We want to educate people on what really happens because most of the time when someone serves as a juror and sentences someone to a term of incarceration that's all they know,” he said. “They don't understand what happened to the person during that period of incarceration, what happened to their families and the impact that it has on the community when that person is removed. We're just incapacitating people.”
ABLE will also be working to encourage people directly impacted by incarceration, which includes the families and friends of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, to “be the champions of their communities” by running for office.
“It's very important to have all different types of perspectives when dealing with our government because our communities are made up of all different types of people,” Jackson said. “Our current system seems to only apply to certain individuals and, in order for us to have the communities that we truly want and the communities that we deserve, it has to be inclusive.”
“No one in this world should be thrown away.”
Savvy Shabazz is the founder and CEO of Life Coach Each One Teach One Reentry Fellowship, a group that helps formerly incarcerated individuals adjust to life outside of prison following their release.
Shabazz, who said he served 28 years for nonviolent drug offenses, thinks ABLE’s goal to elevate the voices of formerly incarcerated people is essential.
“People with lived experience with incarceration are usually the farthest from the decision making and the resources that we need,” he said. “We need individuals to be able to be in positions, to be able to not only represent ourselves, but represent the communities that we come from as well.”
Shabazz recently launched a podcast called Welcome Home focused on reentry efforts for formerly incarcerated people.
“Many of times we hear the story about incarceration, but we hear it from police officers, we hear it from probation and parole officers, we hear it from wardens, we hear it from corrections officers. We never hear our own stories. So we want to grant those opportunities [for people to tell us] about what that experience was like … [and] also want to uplift the success stories.”
There are also plans for ABLE to launch reentry programs for people leaving incarceration and form relationships with other community organizations across the state.
Jackson hopes that ABLE’s work can show formerly incarcerated people, and Kentuckians in general, that they are more than their past.
“We're here to provide that visual of hope that you can be and you can accomplish other things after this mistake that you've made,” he said. “It's also about showing the community that we're not these bad people that the narrative would lead you to believe that we are. No one in this world should be thrown away. There is redemption.”