In Baltimore, an ex-offender is in the business of second chances

Entrepreneur Chris Wilson is trying to make a difference by helping former inmates get jobs

Chris Wilson, college student and entrepreneur, was sentenced to serve life in prison
Christy Zuccarini / www.undertheleavesphotography

BALTIMORE — Chris Wilson’s photo album is a marvel of cut and paste. Only on close examination, when the jagged edges around each image become visible, is it obvious that these are photographs of him taken in prison (cut out with scissors that were by regulation dull), and superimposed on places far beyond the walls of his cell.

After Wilson was sent away at age 17 to serve a life sentence for first-degree murder, his closest friend often asked why he bothered creating scenes from an imagined life.

Wilson explains that the hope that somehow he might be freed — his “positive delusion” — is what kept him going. In prison, he took classes, getting every certificate that was offered, learned languages and earned an associate’s degree. The hard work paid off; a new judge decided to give him a second chance.

After 14 years of incarceration, Wilson was freed, and returned to society, as more than 650,000 individuals are each year from either state or federal prisons. For those returning citizens who have a record, many challenges await, including securing viable employment. (A 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that in 2008, there were between 12 million and 14 million ex-offenders of working age, who, because of their poor job prospects, lowered the total male employment that year by 1.5 percentage points, costing the U.S. economy between $57 million and $65 million in lost output.)

Before Photoshop: A page from Wilson's photo album, where he inserted his image in places far beyond the prison walls
Courtesy Chris Wilson

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike recognize that improving re-entry for the formerly incarcerated reduces recidivism and is an important component in public safety and crime reduction. Last summer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Department of Justice’s Smart on Crime Initiative. One of its five main principles calls for an improvement of re-entry. Likewise, one of the 10 recommendations in the newly released report, “Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime,” by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is for the government to provide employers with incentives to hire people who have records.

Like most ex-offenders, Wilson faced challenges when he got out, but he also saw opportunities. Today, in addition to being a full-time student with a full-time job, he has started two businesses. Because he has fared better than others, Wilson is determined to help formerly incarcerated men have an opportunity to build the life he once constructed out of old magazine pages, photographs and Scotch tape.

“I understand what it’s like to want a second chance. I wouldn’t be here today if people didn’t give me one,” he says. “And to be able to give it [back] is a good feeling.”

I just got on this planet, now my life is over?

Chris Wilson

sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17

As he tells it, Wilson was a mama’s boy. But then his mother fell in love with a bad cop, who beat and raped her. When Wilson was 14, the man did both in front of the boy, after beating Wilson till he was semiconscious. After serving time for this assault, the boyfriend threatened the family. Wilson began carrying a gun.

In the summer of 1996, when he was 17, two men approached Wilson late at night as he walked to a 7-Eleven and asked, “You Chris? We got a message for you.”

Wilson started shooting, and one of the men later died from the gunshot wounds. Wilson was arrested and charged as an adult with first-degree murder.

While Wilson was awaiting trial, his father was murdered. In their last conversation, his father told him, “You always were real studious. I don’t know how someone so smart makes so many bad decisions.”

In June of 1997, having been tried as an adult, Wilson was sentenced to live out the rest of his natural life in prison. When the verdict finally sunk in, he remembers thinking, “I just got on this planet, now my life is over?”

Because of his young age, the judge sentenced Wilson to a treatment facility within the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections that had a more therapeutic and rehabilitative approach than at other prisons.

But no one in his family came to visit, and two months into his incarceration, they stopped accepting the charges on his collect calls. When he later asked his brother for the reason, his brother said, “You got life. What are we supposed to say to you?”

The first page from Wilson's "master plan" which he continues to pursue
Courtesy Chris Wilson

For two years, Wilson was depressed and hopeless. He smoked weed, which was easy enough to come by, he says, even in prison. Then something snapped, and he decided he wasn't going to "[go] out like this." Sitting in his cell, he drafted a master plan for the future, which he still has. It is two pages long and lists everything he planned to do, including acquiring his General Educational Development (GED) degree, learning vocational skills, taking anger management classes and participating in group and individual therapy. He was going to get out of prison, go to college — specifically, the University of Baltimore because of its proximity to the halfway house that people in his institution were released to — publish a book, stop using the N-word and get a black Corvette convertible. He sent a copy to the judge who had heard his case.

In prison, Wilson became friends with Stephen Edwards, who was also in for life. Edwards showed him a stack of books and told Wilson he was going to teach himself programming.

“Dude, you don’t have a computer,” Wilson observed. 

Edwards’ family, who frequently visited and sent care packages, informally adopted Wilson as their own. A math whiz, Edwards tutored Wilson while he was studying for his GED, using a workbook that Wilson’s father had mailed days before he was murdered. When both Wilson and Edwards were admitted into a select college program for inmates at Anne Arundel Community College, they studied together, often pulling all-nighters.

While in school part-time, Wilson proposed the creation of a foreign-language club to professors at the University of Maryland, which is how he learned Spanish and Italian. He also thought the prison needed a sprucing up, so he inquired with the administration about the inmate welfare fund, which at the time had only $600.

In order to grow that fund, Wilson and Edwards drafted a business plan, purchasing a printer and digital camera. They started taking photos of inmates, particularly during visitation days, printing them out, and selling them. Wilson says these mementos were a lifeline to the outside. In two years, they had grown the inmate welfare fund to $25,000, at which point the prison offered to place their money in the administration’s account but earmark it for inmates’ use. By the third year of this initiaitve, Wilson and Edwards had expanded their photo business to T-shirts and mugs and the fund was worth $40,000.

When they approached the prison administration about using the fund to upgrade the gym equipment, Wilson says, they were told the money was gone. It had been used to install a new surveillance system.

At first, Wilson was furious. But then he was inspired. He realized that if he were freed one day, he could put his skills to good use.

Wilson and Edwards reduced the price of their services so that inmates could still have picture souvenirs, but they would only break even, eliminating any large profits that could be taken from the account.

In 2006, on a day Wilson calls the proudest in his life, the pair received associate’s degrees from the community college.

Wilson diligently updated his judge with yearly master plan progress reports. The judge never answered. Then, late that year, at age 27, he was assigned a new judge, who heard his motion to have his sentence reconsidered. Wilson told her about the master plan and what he had accomplished. He said that even when he was 77, he’d be learning another language if he was still in jail.

After listening to Wilson and to the impassioned plea of his attorney, who broke down and cried, the judge reduced his sentence to 24 years, which would make him eligible for release in four years. When she gave him a second chance, Wilson remembers her charging him with making sure he finished his master plan.

I’m out. And I still have the plan.

Chris Wilson

to his program director at University of Baltimore

With renewed optimism, Wilson began working at the prison’s career center, writing curricula vitae and resumes for inmates who would be re-entering society and mentoring new inmates. He studied Mandarin and researched the requirements for a business major at the University of Baltimore, ordering the books listed on the syllabi and poring over them.

Finally, in November 2010, Wilson was released to the halfway house in Baltimore. As soon as he could, he walked to the University of Baltimore and introduced himself to the dean of student affairs, master plan in hand. He explained the circumstances that led up to his crime and what he had done in the 15 years since. He explained that attending the University of Baltimore was in the plan.

Eventually, the university said he could attend, provided he passed the entrance exams; later they offered some financial support. Wilson asked the university’s administration to not reveal his past to his fellow students and professors. Not because he was ashamed, but because he believed it would be harder to make up for a bad impression. He commuted to his classes from the halfway house and flourished at the university.

But back at the halfway house, Wilson says, there was constant tension with his caseworker, who he says would tell him he wouldn’t be able to compete and that soon he’d be working at a gas station or be headed back to jail. Right before midterms in the spring of 2011, his mother called from Georgia, where she was visiting her other son. Did he break out? she asked. Is that how he got out? She then told him she loved him, showing more emotion than she had since he had been arrested.

After she hung up, she overdosed, leaving a suicide note behind.

In the midst of Wilson’s grief, the halfway house made an administrative decision to send him back to prison for his last 13 months of time. Forced to withdraw from school, he was unable to complete the semester – what Wilson most lamented about having to go back.  

At last, on May 11, 2012, he was really free. With rain pouring down, he was released onto the streets of downtown Baltimore. He was homeless and had just $50 in his pocket. All he knew in the city was the University of Baltimore, so he walked straight there, to the office of the director of the major he had been enrolled in, whom he had stayed in touch with from prison.

“I’m out,” he told her. “ And I still have the plan.”

You learn through failing and overcoming; I’m more comfortable with failing. They panic, but failure is OK. You just bounce back.

Chris Wilson

on what he learned in prison

Today, Wilson is finishing his second year as one of six Ratcliffe entrepreneur fellows at the University of Baltimore’s business school, receiving full funding as he works on his degree. He is also the full-time community-workforce director at Greater Homewood Community Corporation, a nonprofit organization in north-central Baltimore. There he helps the area’s residents get off the streets and find jobs.

But as is the case across the country, according to Jesse Jannetta, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, neighborhoods like those where Wilson works, have two strikes against them: their residents are disproportionately incarcerated in the first place, and when the ex-offenders return, the problems they face compound the existing challenges of the community.

Wilson believes that where ex-offenders can be their own boss, they can eliminate a major hurdle to employment that often requires a background check. One of the initiatives he started at Greater Homewood is a series of social-entrepreneurship workshops. He calls it the Barclay Business School — named for one of the toughest, gang-heavy neighborhoods. While running the workshops, which are taught by guest lecturers, Wilson realized not everyone would go on to start their own business, but everyone needed a job. So he invested in and now runs two businesses that seek to employ formerly incarcerated men.

Wilson founded the Barclay Construction Company, which is currently renovating what once was a stately home on St. Paul Street but for decades been occupied by drug dealers and users. His foreman is a journeyman who also spent time in prison and is now starting his own business.

“The ripple effects are amazing,” says Wilson.

In November 2012, he started T&W Upholstery with Warren Savage, who was attending the Barclay workshops. Savage, a master upholsterer, had learned the trade in the Maryland State Penitentiary, where he spent 17 years. T&W hires and trains other formerly incarcerated men to work with them. One of its clients is the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The company is currently setting up a training program for younger returning offenders to learn the craft.

“Chris brought me out of my introversion. I was just going to do my work privately. I had given up,” says Savage, a convert from Islam who is now a Christian pastor. “I preach eulogies on a regular basis, looking at young men in caskets. There has to be more than gospel. There’s gotta be Jesus and a job.”

Jannetta is not surprised that Wilson was serving a life sentence. “Inside, a lot of leaders who are making good things happen are often people who are lifers or serving longer sentences.” If they get out, he says, they often try to make up for “five years in one.”

Wilson’s talent at business has drawn the attention of Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities who he says are trying to recruit him into their MBA programs. His comparative advantage over his classmates, he believes, is his prison experience.

“You learn through failing and overcoming; I’m more comfortable with failing. They panic, but failure is OK. You just bounce back,” he says. “People are scared to make risky decisions and invest in certain initiatives. I’ll do it, and if it fails, I’ll go back to eating ramen noodles for a while.”

Despite Harvard’s heavy sell and undeniable allure, Wilson says he will only consider pursuing a degree there if he can keep Baltimore as his base.

“I can’t give up this community work. My focus is on my operations here,” he says. “The returning population is so huge, especially in Baltimore. Someone has to be able to connect with them and work with them, and I can do that.”

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