By Celia Coates
Some of us in divided America need to know about Chris Wilson’s life now more than ever. With George Floyd’s killing, the profound inequities in our system cannot be so easily overlooked by uninformed, privileged citizens. We need to hear more stories from the people who’ve experienced injustice in their lives, in their communities – for generations. Chris Wilson is one of those people and we can learn from him.
“So they shackled me and locked me in solitary, no belt, no shoelaces, just white walls, a cot, and a food slot in a metal door. I stared at my little room. What else could I do? I thought, My life is over. I’m seventeen years old and I just got on this planet. I don’t even have a mustache yet. And my life is over.”
Chris Wilson described the “what else” he did in his book, THE MASTER PLAN, and I highly recommend reading it.* Most of this post was published last July and told Wilson’s triumphant story about using a life-transforming subtle energies practice (he called it his Master Plan). But it is appearing again now because it’s time for the brutal racism of divided America to be seen as it can be seen in Wilson’s life.
He was in prison as a teenager with a life sentence because he’d killed his attacker. He’d grown up surrounded by poverty, violence, and drugs in a Baltimore community with too few resources, a community very few could leave. It was a neighborhood where you had to fight, sometimes violently, in order to survive. Years later, his prison therapist said his early life had been a tour of duty in a combat zone that had left Wilson with PTSD. It was damage that he had to figure out how to repair on his own. He wrote about what he experienced:
“They call it rock bottom, like it’s a hard floor you go crashing into and stop. But here’s the thing. There’s no floor. You only see it that way later, because rock bottom isn’t a place. You can always go lower. Rock bottom is a decision. It’s the moment you decide to stop falling and take control of your life.” And, “Every path starts with a step. Here’s some advice: Take the easiest one first.”
I find myself wondering what the next step is – the easiest do-able one – for divided America and, what can I do?
Wilson watched another prisoner who had what he wanted – confidence, a purpose, the determination to better himself. That other young inmate was always reading, always studying, and Wilson decided he could begin by getting a high school equivalency diploma. That first step led to this:
“More than twelve years after being kicked out of the eighth grade, ten years after my crime, nine years after receiving life in prison, and eight years after adopting my Master Plan, I earned my associates degree from Anne Arundel Community College.”
Wilson had asked himself, “Why are you here on planet earth? Where do you want your life to go?” He answered those questions and developed his Master Plan:
You got fifty hats? You got a gold chain? So what? That’s not a plan. A plan always starts at the end. What’s your endgame? That’s not just a question. It’s the only question that matters.”
It seems to me that America is lost now in the pursuit of “gold chains.” We have been pursuing riches and status without asking what really matters.
BUT this generation of protesters and workers for a renewal of the best of America’s values are again asking the question, “What is our endgame for this country?” And they’re taking to the streets to demand answers as a current first step.
Wilson succeeded with his Plan. He held his vision of a future outside prison. He did everything he could to make it real and became the extraordinary exception to the harsh rules about unbreakable life sentences. It was not easy. Even after he was freed, it was still not easy. In 2016 Wilson received the President’s Volunteer Service Award and was invited to the White House by President Obama to join in with others for a Rose Garden ceremony. When he went to the White House gate, he was denied entrance by the Secret Service who said he was a security risk:
“I had an invitation. The ceremony was for me and other black role models. I wasn’t a threat. I was an honored citizen. The Secret Service said my murder conviction made me a security risk.
‘But I was invited because of my murder conviction,’ I argued. ‘I am being honored for turning my life around.’ They wouldn’t budge. Once a murderer, always judged. It was the lesson drilled into every returning citizen: some will give you a chance, but others will deny you rights, deny you jobs, and judge you forever on the worst thing you’ve ever done.
The only reason I got into my own ceremony was because one of my mentors made a few calls to the White House and threatened to have CNN run the story.”
He was finally admitted after waiting for two and a half hours. But what if you don’t have “connections”?
One of Wilson’s favorite stories is from Plato – the one about a cave in which prisoners are chained so that they can only see the shadows on the wall in front of them, not the reality of the fire and the actual world opening behind them. One man escaped. Wilson wrote:
“Every life is lived in a cave, that was Plato’s point. We never know the truth, only the shadows.
But there was something I missed the first four times I read the story. The man wasn’t recaptured. He wasn’t forced to return. He went there of his own free will, to teach the truth to those left behind. To tell them the shadows weren’t real. To tell them the shadows weren’t real and there was a better life. … I needed to be the man who shared his knowledge, of his own free will, with the people still in their bonds.”
That is what Chris Wilson has done – gone back to help others.
He also wrote:
“I don’t like courtrooms. Even today, if I’m giving a speech, I hate doing it in a courtroom. I don’t understand the rules there, but I know they are against us: the poor, the dark, and the accused – rightly or wrongly – because that’s the room’s purpose. These are the places America created to finish us off.”
“I’m not trying to be naïve. In my experience, 30 percent of the men and women in prison aren’t ready to change. They’re dangerous. But 70 percent of released prisoners return to prison within five years. That’s 40 percent pushed back into incarceration by a system so broken that it hurts every American, not just because punishment instead of rehabilitation creates more (and more violent) criminals. The cost of housing our massive prison population, after all, was estimated by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2010 to be $39 billion – every year.
We need a system that identifies good people in prison and rewards them for their efforts. We are watched inside twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You seriously think those watchers can’t figure out who’s made a sincere change and who’s doing the work? We need to get rid of … all the arbitrary deadlines that keep good people locked up on technicalities, and let everyone who has earned their freedom, achieve their freedom.”
Wilson said that, “It was being there for one another – not for a job, not for money, not for credit – that changes our lives.”
I believe that is what we all need to do in whatever way we can – to be there for each other.
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* THE MASTER PLAN: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose, by Chris Wilson, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.
The image that accompanies this post is from PxHere.