Dear readers: This obituary is written by Ken Penner, with input from Tai Jackson, in response to a story/obituary written for the Winnipeg Free Press by Danton Unger on Sept 4 about Roger Jackson.
Roger was my friend. I’m sorry that’s he’s gone. He had requested that I come to visit him in the Stonewall Hospital and the staff at Stony Mountain jail were in the process of arranging the visit when I received a call he had died that day at 5 am.
Politics and religion were our favourite topics when we met at the visitor’s room at Stony Mountain Penitentiary. It seemed that any topic I brought up: Conrad Black, TV evangelists, Trump & Trudeau…, Roger was well informed. As jail librarian he was well read. He never dominated the conversation, listened as much as he spoke and had good insight.
Roger was a horse whisperer. Animals gravitated to him. Over the years when he was out on parole he would take a job at various tracks like Assiniboine Downs and walk and feed horses. He had a reputation of turning cantankerous horses into horses that obeyed his every word.
Tai, Roger’s sister, along with Roger’s friends, recall how kind and considerate Roger was as a young boy. Tai remembers weeping when she was told there was no Santa Claus. She also remembers that the next Easter Roger gave her a big hug and told her he had just seen the Easter bunny! In his many years in jail, Roger until he passed away, called Tai regularly and would always ask how his childhood friends were doing.
Over the nearly 30 years that I visited him at Stony we also participated in many Open Circle* Coffee Houses. Not that Roger and I were the best singers but it was enjoyable to listen to the inmate band play and the rest of us sing together gospel favourites like “Come Home, Come Home It’s Supper Time” and always ending with “Amazing Grace”. There was so much loneliness and reflection yet comfort in those melodies and their words. “When we’ve been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun”, sung by twenty inmates and twenty visitors was a bonding experience. Roger was very much a part of this group.
Roger had a passion for plays. When he was out on parole and if it was during the Fringe Festival, he would always buy a pass to see at least one or two plays each day of the festival. He was also a playwright. In 1995 he wrote a play (I wish I could remember the name of it) that was performed to packed audiences at Rockwood (Stony Mountain Minimum security). CBC picked up on this and interviewed Roger about the play and broadcasted it on radio. Those of us who knew Roger were proud of him!
Roger was always interested in what I was doing and when I described some of the latest apps on my phone or what one could do on the Internet, he was always intrigued. But ironically one of the few ways I could communicate with him was via Canada Post by sending postcards. One day I asked Roger when he was in medium security cell how he decorated his cell. Any pictures? Calendars? Nope, he said, the postcards I sent to him from various parts of the world pasted to his walls were his decoration. I felt honoured but sad.
Roger was not in prison for no reason. He did bad things that hurt people and I acknowledge that. Roger paid dearly for his choices by spending over half his life in prison. Already at an early age he got caught up using drugs. But at the same time he had many redeeming qualities and it would have been so good if he could have stayed out of jail and on parole for the 4 or 5 times he was on parole. These are the parts of Roger’s life that were described in Danton Unger’s description of Roger’s life. But Unger’s article didn’t capture the heartbreak and disappointment of his childhood, it didn’t describe how much love and resources are required to break cycles of despair and addiction.
Despite the despise that Roger must have felt directed at him, Roger had a positive attitude, was well liked by inmates and staff, by family and by those of us on the outside who got to know him. I wish more people could have gotten to know Roger. I wish someone could have shown him more love and encouragement when he was a child. Roger shows us how tender we are, and how deep sadness breeds more deep sadness. Roger, flawed and imperfect as we all are, was also a citizen of the earth, a child of society, and I believe, loved by God.
Roger, I look forward to continuing our conversations and perhaps even taking some interesting journeys with you during the upcoming 10,000 years. Rest in peace, my brother and friend until we meet again.
*Open Circle started by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was formed so that inmates who rarely received visitors but had signed up with Open Circle would be matched with a volunteer who would come to visit and chat once or twice a month. Roger and I were matched in 1992 and we visited until 2020.