Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. will learn whether and for how long he could go to prison Wednesday — but he’s already shown a preference for some of the nation’s poshest pens.
The one-time lawmaker from Illinois pleaded guilty on Feb. 20 to raiding $750,000 from his campaign fund to make a slew of personal purchases, including a $43,000 Rolex, vacations and other luxury items. He and his wife are due to be sentenced in a Washington district court on Wednesday.
“For years I lived off my campaign,” Jackson said in court in February. “I used money that should have been for campaign purposes for personal purposes.”
Jackson, the son of civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, resigned his seat representing Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, citing mental health issues. He had sought treatment for bipolar depression for prolonged periods at the Mayo Clinic, amidst ongoing federal investigations. Speculation had swirled before his resignation at home and on Capitol Hill about the reasons behind Jackson’s long, unexplained absences.
In preparation for his sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Jackson’s attorneys named their client’s first choices for where to spend time behind bars: the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Ala., or the Federal Correctional Institution Butner, in North Carolina.
By chance or design, both of the prisons named by attorneys for the one-time lawmaker on Monday made a 2009 Forbes list of the nation’s “cushiest prisons.”
“FPC Montgomery is the closest FPC to Washington, D.C.,” Jackson’s attorneys wrote in their formal request, “and would, as such, allow Mr. Jackson to maintain contact with his wife and children during incarceration.”
Jackson’s second choice, Butner, is about 500 miles from Washington, his attorneys noted, and would allow his children to visit. The prison is also near where Jackson went to college in North Carolina, the lawyers wrote, and he “has significant ties to the area, which he believes will aid in his rehabilitation during any term of incarceration.”
Jackson attorney Reid H. Weingarten of firm Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C., declined to elaborate on his client's prison preferences.
“I don’t want to ruin the show,” he said, referring to the Wednesday hearing.
Of course, there's nothing new about convicted, formerly respectable members of society seeking out a cot in Club Fed. Ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff spent 43 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., and former congressman Randy Cunningham spent time at the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson after accepting $2.4 million in defense contractor bribes.
And while neither of the two prisons named by Jackson's attorneys would match the high-flying lifestyle he maintained when he was mooching off campaign cash (including the purchase of a $1,500 cashmere cape, according to court filings), Jackson wouldn't be breaking rocks in the prison yard either.
Montgomery is an "excellent facility," said defense attorney and federal prisons expert Alan Ellis, and Butner is "an attractive place; well-run, well-managed."
At Montgomery, he could take an apprenticeship course in horticulture or train as a landscaper. At Butner, Jackson could get prison-yard stock tips from white collar crook Bernie Madoff, or prisoner 61727-054, as he’s known at the medium-security facilty he inhabits at the complex. Neither permits conjugal visits.
Here's more on Jackson's top prison picks:
- 2009 Forbes ranking: 3
- Located about 90 miles from Birmingham, Ala., FPC Montgomery sits on the grounds of the Maxwell Air Force Base, which houses about 12,500 military and civilian personnel. The camp is on the grounds of the facility “to provide manpower for the general maintenance of the Air Force Base,” according to the prison’s orientation handbook, and inmates jobs include work as bakers, landscapers, and librarians.
- Spending the day on a base like Maxwell can have unexpected perks. Ellis said he had a client at FPC Montgomery who was tasked with mowing the base general's lawn, a job that could be sweaty work in the Alabama summer. "The general's wife would invite the client in for lemonade and cookies," Ellis said.
- No luxury outlets or high-priced goodies here: A jar of pickle relish from the prison commissary costs $1.95; Gillette aftershave goes for $3.90.
- Inmates don’t have to listen to their cell-mates’ choice of music if they don’t want to: Use of radios without headphones is prohibited, according to the prison’s handbook.
- Former notable inmates include Charles Colson, a special counsel to President Richard Nixon who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
- 2009 Forbes ranking: 9
- About 35 miles outside Raleigh, N.C., the prison is an hour's drive from where Jackson's alma mater, North Carolina A&T, in Greensboro.
- There’s a tinge of collegiality to the complex that houses low- to medium-security facilities: All of the buildings are named after schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Ellis said. Madoff is in Clemson.
- Former inmates include televangelist Jim Bakker and attempted Reagan assassin John Hinckley, Jr. Current residents apart from Madoff at the Butner complex include Omar Ahmad Rahman, the engineer of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who is known as the Blind Sheikh, and former mobster Carmine Persico.
- The prison has tech industry cred, with the Federal Bureau of Prisons saying on its website that the facility is situated “near the research triangle area of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill.”
- There’s a more serious reason Jackson’s attorneys might want to see him wind up at Butner – they have said he suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, and will need treatment in prison. The Butner complex includes the Federal Medical Center, which has full hospital facilities. "He's in treatment or has been in treatment, and they're probably going to want to put him in a place where they can continue treatment," Ellis said.