When I first spot Chris Wilson, he’s coming out of a home with a “for sale” realtor sign staked in the front, wearing a black shirt, jeans and a black jacket: his self-appointed daily uniform. The 38-year-old looks a bit bewildered. The white realtor showing the Baltimore home just gave him a far less than enthusiastic reception, and he’s feeling a bit bemused.
“Don’t they know I live right next door?” he laughingly questions, his hand outstretched to shake mine. “I could buy that place cash if I wanted to.”
He could definitely afford the neighborhood, but Wilson’s appearance betrays that fact. His brown hue and unassuming dress make him seem like an unlikely candidate to purchase the $300,000 property. He is a black man in America unadorned by any symbols of wealth. No ostentatious jewelry. No designer clothes or expensive-looking kicks. Through the distorted lens of racism, one could easily mistake him for just another nigga with bad credit.
And what a mistake that would be.
“I’m leaving to Palermo, Italy soon,” he begins as we walk together, pushing aside the casual indignity of the realtor’s dismissal. “They are flying me in to give a speech over there at a prison.”
Success has been a fact of his life for years now, since graduating from Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business and establishing himself as an entrepreneur and social activist in the city. His businesses—Barclay Investment Corporation, which specializes in business and residential contract work, and his furniture restoration and design company, House of DaVinci—have not only brought in hundreds of thousands in revenue but also have helped to employ dozens of otherwise “unemployable” black men in the community. In 2015, he received the President’s Volunteer Service Award and got an invitation to meet then-president Barack Obama at the White House. The following year, he was featured in an ad campaign for Bernie Sanders as part of the politician’s prison reform platform.
But success wasn’t simply written in the stars for Wilson. It came with a hefty price tag; he traded his hard work and life story like precious commodities for it. Only five years ago, Chris Wilson was a man with little chance of freedom. He was serving a life sentence for murder.
“Things would’ve been different if my mom never met that dude,” he states definitively.
Raised by a doting single mother, in one of Washington D.C.’s worst neighborhoods, Chris didn’t have an ideal upbringing, but his mother fought hard to make sure her children had access to good housing, an education and extracurricular activities. As a child, he played the violin and frequented the neighborhood library where he would escape “the hood” for the distant and fantastical worlds of children’s novels. Things changed when Wilson was about 14, and his mom began dating an abusive cop who terrorized the family. His influence lead her to a drug addiction, and beatings became a frequent occurrence, almost claiming her life.
Chris’s life quickly spiraled out of control. He got swept up in street life, abusing drugs and committing crimes. With his then-girlfriend, he robbed local convenience stores and gas stations. One robbery became two, two became five. And then he caught a charge. Not for robbery, but for murder. On one stifling hot summer day, Wilson pulled out the gun he carried with him for protection and pulled the trigger multiple times firing at two men who he thought were threatening his life. One of the men ran around a corner and collapsed.
“I didn’t even know the guy died until the police picked me up almost three weeks later,” he admits.
In 1997, Wilson was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17 for murder and robbery charges. Everything was severed: his connection to his neighborhood, his family, friends and girlfriend. His only tethers to the outside world were letters he received signed with “I love you” and filled with reassurances that jail was better than life beyond the prison walls.
“You ain’t missing nothing out here,” one letter read, “better that you are in there than in Harmony Hall Cemetery.”
Wilson floated between solitary confinement and general holding in a zombie-like state at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections. He knew his odds of being granted release were slim. In the state of Maryland, only the governor has the power to release prisoners and just two years earlier in 1995, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would not grant parole to anyone sentenced to life. A recent report by The Sentencing Project found that Maryland is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to granting parole or commuting sentences for those sentenced to life. It also reported that black people are disproportionately handed down life sentences. Nationwide, one in five black prisoners is serving life.
If he could successfully establish a business while confined, he knew he would be capable of so much more outside of the prison walls.
Currently, the state is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a prisoner-rights group. The group believes the state’s current parole system is unconstitutional for juvenile lifers because it does not give them a realistic chance of release. Some disagree.
“I don’t think those who have committed first-degree murder and first-degree rape deserve a second chance,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger recently said. “I think that in the interest of public safety, the governor, whether a Democrat or Republican, has a duty to protect the citizens of Maryland.”
The city seems to have a vested interest in keeping its young people behind bars. Thirty-five million dollars were recently spent to build a youth detention facility. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s students are attending schools without heat.
Wilson was well-aware of the unforgiving system he was up against. The American justice system has an incarceration rate higher than any other country in the world. It has imprisoned more than two million African-Americans, with some serving life even for non-violent offenses. During the first two years of his sentence, he was completely hopeless and depressed.
One conversation with a fellow inmate, Stephen Edwards, changed that.
“He was making plans for himself, saying that he was going to go to college and open a business, despite the fact that he had a life sentence like me and many of the other guys in there,” he says. “To everyone else, this guy was just talking crazy.”
Chris, however, followed the example set by Edwards. He developed what he called his “master plan,” a strategy to self-growth and betterment. He wrote a long list of goals he hoped to accomplish. Purchase a tailored suit. Learn to speak Spanish. Stay focused. And took on more difficult challenges like suppress memories of home. Earn my high school diploma. Be able to travel around the world. Gain acceptance to the University of Baltimore. Start my own business one day that makes a difference in people’s lives.
“I knew that if I was going to not only survive but thrive in prison I would need to turn inward and forget my past outside.”
After a decade and a half behind bars, Wilson found himself executing his “master plan” as intended. He exercised body and mind in equal measure, putting on 20 pounds of muscle and accelerating his education. With the help and mentorship of a fellow inmate, he managed to get a G.E.D and finish his associate’s degree. After learning that the inmates’ welfare fund only had a paltry $600 in its account, Wilson and Edwards drafted a business plan and put it into action to raise money. They purchased a digital camera and printer and started taking photos of inmates, that they would then sell during visitation days. In two years, they grew the inmate welfare fund to $25,000, and by the third year of their venture, Wilson and Edwards had expanded their photo business to t-shirts and mugs. The effort raised $40,000. The money was supposed to be placed in an account for inmates’ use only, but when the pair approached the prison administration about using the fund to upgrade the gym equipment, Wilson says, they were told the money was gone—used to install a new surveillance system.
Wilson was outraged, but that anger blossomed into inspiration. If he could successfully establish a business while confined, he knew he would be capable of so much more outside of the prison walls. He applied to the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business and was accepted with a full ride. The final benediction would be the grace of the judge who would decide if he was worthy of a second chance, whether or not he was a changed man ready to be a productive member of society.
“Don’t let me down,” she warned while signing the papers that would make him a free man.
Those papers meant that he would join a very short list of ex-felons with life sentences who were lucky enough to be classified as “rehabilitated.” He served 16 years before his release.
When he got out, the first call he made was to his mother. He promised her that she would be the first person he visited, but he could never make good on that promise. She committed suicide on the day of his release, unable to face him.
Wilson did not let the judge who released him down. At 33, with a few bucks in his pocket, fresh out of prison and while branded “unhirable” because of his status as an ex-felon, he started his first business: a landscaping company (a solo-man, single lawn mower venture).
“In prison, I was making $1.35 a day, so I was happy to make $30 a yard.”
He told his story to anyone willing to listen, garnering the support of Baltimore businessmen, politicians and the community. Within one year of his release, he secured his first business loan and shortly after established House of DaVinci, his furniture venture. The following year, he started Barclay Investment Corp in order to reinvest in his community and its residents.
“I’ve directly helped 259 people get jobs here in Baltimore,” he said.
He personally employs at least 50 of them.
Wilson also gives speeches, detailing his tumultuous childhood, his battles with incarceration and the road he journeyed to freedom. He has been invited to speak at the White House twice and travels the world to tell his story. In 2016, he sold his first book, The Master Plan, to Putnam for six figures. It is set to be released this year.
Wilson is likely one of the most prominent examples of the untapped potential that is squandered in our country’s criminal justice system. If not for the compassion of a judge, he would never have found a path back to society. Prison reform became a heightened issue during the Obama presidency and if last week’s White House sessions were any proof, even the current administration is taking up the issue, wanting to shift focus from prosecution to rehabilitation and job training. As activists, policy experts and the formerly incarcerated work tirelessly, it becomes more difficult for our leaders to turn a blind eye to the state of our prisons. With every Wilson, we are reminded of countless inmates who could have a second lease on their futures, and the countless “master plans” that are waiting to become reality.