In this special episode of Rattling the Bars, Eddie Conway visits social entrepreneur and former prisoner Chris Wilson in his furniture restoration shop to speak about the need for support amongst formerly incarcerated individuals, and about his support for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
EDDIE CONWAY: Hi, I’m Eddie Conway. Thanks for joining me at the Real News. This is a special edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m down here in the shop with a brother didn’t think he would be in the street again. He’s been very successful in opening two businesses; he’s helping people in the community. So I want to talk to him and find out exactly what motivated him to move beyond prison into the business world and what also motivated him to give back to the people. I’m impressed with your story. Were we ever in jail together? CHRIS WILSON: I don’t know. CONWAY: I had been in the Maryland House of Correction. WILSON: I spent most of my time in Patuxent. Like 15 years. CONWAY: Okay and I was in Patuxent probably in 2014. You were probably already home then. WILSON: Yeah. CONWAY: Okay, well your story is fascinating so if you would, just tell me and the audience here exactly what happened. Just take a minute and go through the time you were growing up, till 17, to just your thing. Could you share that? WILSON: Sure. So I grew up in Washington, D.C. Northeast. At the time it was a very violent environment for me. Shooting almost everyday. My mom was dealing with a police officer—D.C. police officer who used to beat my mom up and abuse her. One day he beat my mom up and sexually assaulted her in front of me and then started stalking our family. CONWAY: This is when you were 14? WILSON: Yeah, I was probably younger than that actually. Maybe like 12 or something like that. My mom fell into a depression. I started carrying a firearm for protection as well as my brothers. My brother was shot a couple times. My cousin was shot a couple times–multiple times and then passed away. They just kept just stalking us, they kept coming after us. And eventually people came after me. I was 17 at the time. These people that came after me were in their 30s. They threatened me. It was just a crazy situation. I ended up firing a few shots and taking a person’s life. This happened right outside of D.C. in Prince George’s County and I got found guilty and sentenced to natural life in prison. CONWAY: Put you in the prison system at 17? Tried you as an adult? WILSON: Right. CONWAY: And what happened. I see those first couple years were kind of rough for you. WILSON: You know I had met a person who was sentenced, about the same age as me who was motivated to turn his life around. He wanted to be a computer programmer. He was studying software, computer code, and just writing it out on paper and stuff. He eventually became my mentor and started tutoring me in math and stuff. So I went to my cell and just wrote up this master plan of what I wanted. The person I wanted to become and things I wanted to do. It was like high school diploma college degree, write a book, teach myself Spanish. I wanted a corvette, a black corvette. Most importantly I wanted to earn my freedom one day and return to impoverished communities and create opportunities. Opportunities that I didn’t see or have growing up. So that’s what kind of motivated me to do what I’m doing now. I ended up doing 16 years in prison. So I came home just barely getting by. CONWAY: Wait back up. How did you come home? You’d done 16 years. That’s certainly not life. WILSON: Right. So 10 years in—well let me back up a little further. Part of the master plan, at some point I had got my high school diploma. I had did all the vocational shops, I taught myself carpentry, all kinds of things, and then my friend said well that’s great. CONWAY: Is this Edwards? WILSON: Yes. Said that’s great you’re helping yourself. He says but look around you. Look at all these people around here that’s just playing cards or just talk on the phone. They could really like benefit from like your mentorship. So I was like alright. So I started mentoring. I started tutoring folks and we just started helping more people. So as a result we started a book club, we started a career center, we started a photography business behind the fence. We just did all these amazing things and 10 years into my sentence. COWAY: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Share a little bit cause you know I spent–like I said a lot of time inside. I noticed when you started the photography business you raised a lot of money for the inmates and the police stole it. What happened there? WILSON: It’s funny. Actually, it’s not funny. So this was right when digital cameras first came out and so our accounts was dwindling and their welfare fund account. And so we figured a smart investment would be to take the rest of the money we had and invest it into this new technology digital cameras and we could print out the pictures, everything like it was just a smarter move. And so we did that. We started raising a lot of money for our account. Like a lot of money. 20,000-30,000 like it was just growing. And the administration decided to take our money out of the inmate welfare fund account and then put it into their account and then ear market for our use. So I was like that’s little suspicious. Like why would you just move the money? So I says, well they might be up to something so we’re going to put in a request to spend some of it to get some gym equipment and some stuff for the institution and then when we put the request in they said you don’t have the money because you spent it. I said no I didn’t. They said you see these security cameras up here? You paid for those, thanks. I was like–so we were upset about it obviously so we tried to drop the price of the picture tickets so that we just break even and the program sustains itself and they can’t profit of it. They decided to raise the price. So I was upset by that incident. But it also gave me a little bit of motivation because it showed me I could build a business. So that was the lesson I took out of it. CONWAY: How did you learn this skill? Fixing these things, restoring furniture and whatnot. How did that come about? WILSON: So I learned in prison in the vocational shop. It was like a woodworking shop that a spent 13 months in. I’m a lifelong learner so I’m always trying to learn things. If I see someone like working on building this bucket. I’m going to ask questions; I’m going to try to pay attention to it. Then if I figure out I can make money by selling buckets, then I’m going to make buckets. So there’s plenty of furniture here. This is like a dying trade. Most people don’t know how to do this and like old furniture, people usually keep that in their family, they pass it down. There’s a lot of history and stuff behind. It’s a lot of money you can make in this industry. So it’s just an opportunity to make some money and raise some jobs. And I’ll always define myself as a social entrepreneur so I just came to Baltimore. I came here and figured I’d set up shop. The cost of living was good, was low, and it was a lot of opportunity. A lot of social problems to tackle obviously. I felt like I could make a difference here as opposed to in D.C. which pretty much was gentrified. CONWAY: Well now I understand that in one of you companies you actually hire people that had been in the system that gained some skills and they’re working for you now in one of your companies. What motivated you to hire ex-offenders? WILSON: Well I think–so like I said before, I wanted to create opportunities that I didn’t have before growing up. So often times growing up the older folks would say you need to go out and get a job or you need to go out and cut some grass. Stop sitting around and your wasting time. And I’d just be like alright. Who’s going to hire me? Where’s the job at and stuff. So now that I’m in a position to provide opportunities. So whenever I can I’ll just try to provide those opportunities to people. So that’s what I do. I don’t necessarily target returning citizens. But it’s mostly whoever needs help the most. So if it’s someone who’s like, they got a good attitude but they just can’t pay they bills. CONWAY: Show me what you’re working on now and tell me what needs to happen to it in order to–this looks good. Why you working on these? These are done. WILSON: This is nice but I’m replacing the fabric on these. Then I’m going to re-strengthen the chairs. Full distressed look so they want you to think that they’re old but they’re not old. Very nice chairs. So I’m going to replace the fabric and re-strengthen the chairs. Some of them are wobbling a little bit. Then this is from another client, I’m going to redo this chair. CONWAY: Alright. So how long did it take you to do just one of these chairs? WILSON: Just one day. We can do all these in a day. It’s real simple. It’s good money too. CONWAY: Alright cause I have a piano that I’m going to probably end up bringing down here. You might have to come get my piano. Can you do work in a house? WILSON: Yeah, I can. We prefer to work in the shop though. CONWAY: Yeah, I don’t know that my piano will come back out the house. Okay, but we’ll talk about that at another time. WILSON: When I wrote the master plan out, I sent a copy of it to my judge. Ten years had went by and the judge says I’ll let you out but you have to finish this master plan. So they gave me a chance. Education was the key path for me to get out of prison. Bernie gets it more than anyone. BERNIE SANDERS: We are going to invest in our young people. In jobs and education. Not jails and incarceration. WILSON: If you look at our community now, it’s not that people out here are doing these crimes and stuff because they’re stupid. People lack the knowledge to do things, to start a company. What do you do? How do you do that? SANDERS: I want every kid in this country. I want them to know. Yes they will be able to get a higher education. WILSON: My position are the issues that I can about. For the most part I try to remain politically neutral. I’m an entrepreneur, a student. But issues about education and criminal justice reform obviously resonate with me because my education was free. It’s changed my life. It has enlightened me to a lot of different things. A lot of opportunities. It gave me the tools and the skill set to give back to my community and help others. Also the criminal justice system. There’s so many reforms that need to take place. For example, the way we treat our juveniles. Putting them in solitary confinement, sentencing juveniles to life sentences, and just sending people away for 20 years for bags of weed. All of these things, so there’s so much work to be done and I feel like when I look at the landscape that Bernie Sanders was the most qualified candidate who was speaking to those issues so I was asked to do it and my thing was I want to make sure I focus on the issues and be a politically neutral as possible. Of course I had to endorse him. So like now he’s out. It looks like it’s Hillary who will be the front runner for the Democratic Party. I’m not a Trump fan at all. But I feel like right now Hillary’s in a position where she can look at some of these policies and issues that Bernie Sanders was pushing forward that I think is an opportunity for her to carry on and push these policies forward. I think it just makes sense. Especially with criminal justice reform, education, stuff like that. I just think it’s a good move so we’ll see. CONWAY: Are you going to stay engaged? WILSON: Definitely. I’m going to stay engaged and also encourage other folks to stay engaged. Recently, even before this primary race, I would advocate down on Capitol Hill and out in Annapolis to try to restore the return of citizens right to vote in the state of Maryland. So I was doing that along with an army of folks who were pushing for that. So I’m proud to say a few months ago you know I was able to vote for the first time in my life. So I’m walking in there and they’re like what you smiling for and it’s just like you know I finally felt like citizen. You know you get out of prison, you work, you’re doing your thing you’re paying your taxes. And part of being a citizen is you want to be able to participate in the democratic process. So I was finally able to do that. So it was like one of the best feelings of my life. CONWAY: Okay. I notice also that you’re advocating that other people getting out of the prison system should establish their own kind of businesses and start up so that they can employ themselves because you don’t see any jobs out here for–. WILSON: Not enough. Honestly I’ve been thinking about this. Prisoners are some of the most innovative people in the world. You’ve got nothing but time. You can think about stuff and hash out ideas and stuff. And there’s a lot of folks behind the fence that have ideas, business ideas that you can bring to fruition and I encourage folks to do that. Like it’s the best feeling in the world to just wake up and whenever you feel like it. You’ve got your own operation running. You don’t have someone else over your back and stuff. It’s just a good feeling to work for yourself. But it does come with a lot of responsibility. But I think it should be an option that should be considered by people returning home from prison. CONWAY: So are you going to stay here in Baltimore. I mean, how–I know you said Baltimore was like a nice place to kind of operate from. WILSON: Someone just asked me that too, at lunch. CONWAY: Yeah, are you staying here? What’s the deal? WILSON: So Baltimore is my base, right? I’ve been away a couple of weeks, negotiating this book deal, speaking all over the country. Super homesick. Couldn’t wait to get back. I definitely want to travel more but this is my base of operations. I actually love this city. I love the people more than anything. Very, very soulful people here. So I like the people here. They love their neighborhood. They love their city. Warts and all we love it. So I don’t think I’m going anywhere. I might leave to go to school or something but I’m coming back. It’s too important here. It’s too much work to be done. CONWAY: This has been a special edition of Rattling the Bars and thank you for joining me.
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