Dr. Willie Wilson: The Real Gift of Giving
Around this time of year, the holidays are upon us as we prepare for the tradition of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thousands of detainees in our jail system will not have the privilege of sharing the holidays with their families and friends.
For decades, the criminal justice system has gone under scrutiny for its unbalanced bail system. Non-violent crimes and misdemeanors are often set with bails that don’t match the crime or, worse, people detained months without the ability to pay. The lasting impact on poor people is catastrophic, contributing to rising numbers in jail while detainees await trial.
Dr. Willie Wilson, a Chicago-area businessman, has built several successful businesses over the last three decades. His deep ties in the Black community are often associated with his philanthropic efforts with many churches, often donating $800,000 to $1 million a year.
The executive producer of the long-running Gospel television program “Singsation,” he is a familiar face and voice with its loyal Sunday morning viewers. In 2014, he entered the Chicago mayoral race, running against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The millionaire invested a little over $2 million of his own money, and although he didn’t win the primary, he received 10.66 percent of the vote.
Wilson is considered one of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s respected allies. In 2015, he threw his hat into the ring to run for U.S. president which didn’t receive much coverage .
Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
During his campaign runs, a major concern was criminal-justice reform and how the system is unbalanced toward African-Americans and Latinos. As he talked to more and more people dealing with similar problems from high bail bonds for misdemeanor crimes to detainees being held months, unable to make bail, sometimes leading to job and home loss, he felt he had to do something.
As a private citizen, he put his money where his mouth is. He delved into his pocket and began the process of identifying who some of the individuals were to assist and bail them out.
“When I was running for president and also when I ran for mayor, we were talking about prison reform. So I did commercial spots for prison reforms when I was around the country campaigning for the presidency. We’re always talking about it, but who’s doing anything about it? I look at my own self. I didn’t want to be like anybody else and just talk. I went in my pocket and started to do it.”
Since his initial decision to begin the process, Wilson reached out to the Cook County sheriff’s office and received a list of detainees who had small bonds.
“We went through that list and selected at random who gets out. We don’t know any of them — we check off the names. From there, if they show up for the court date, we get 90 percent of that money back. Once we get it back, we will reinvest it to get more detainees out,” he said.
Wilson hopes to help bail out 1,000-2,000 people in 2017.
He says this experience didn’t start here. The effects of having people close to you was a familiar occurrence within his family.
“We had two kids that went to Cook County Jail. Both of them went in there with an attitude, they came out with an attitude 10 times worse. One of them came out so bitter, later he was killed—my 20-year-old son,” he recounts.
“So jail changes you if you come out hard. Normally, these young men and ladies have no idea what they’re getting into when they get to jail. Some end up in there hard, some end up getting raped, some beat up, some can’t handle it and their mind is crippled. I don’t think that any human being could be subjected to that.
The Legislative Process
He is not alone in his fight to bring awareness to the forefront. Dr. Wilson has enlisted the support of over 100 churches, at least 10 non-profit organizations and several public officials — including Illinois State Representatives Elgie R. Sims Jr. (34th District) and LaShawn K. Ford (8th District).
Currently, the group is working on a bill to present to the state legislature to eliminate lengthy incarceration for non-violent and misdemeanor cases in jails across the state. He’s also enlisted the help of Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who is helping to write the bill and has met with Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans on discussing next steps.
Dr. Wilson says, “Also, we met with the governor’s people. Three weeks ago, I met with Gov. Rauner — one on one. He is going to support the bill we’re putting together now, but it’s just talk for now.”
State Rep. Ford believes this move by Dr. Wilson could be a major game-changer in how private citizens could influence the narrative of criminal-justice reform.
“What Dr. Wilson has done has clearly upset the norm, and when you have business people that are pretty well off — he’s chosen the least of society and made a big difference. You are going to see reform in the bail system. That’s to be commended, because before he started bailing people out, I’ve had bills to change the bail system in Illinois for years. The thing about it is, when he went to put his money up, that really made a difference,” Ford said.
He says Wilson has put government to shame. “He was doing what government was supposed to do for people. Because of him, Illinois will have some reforms in our justice system for bail pretrial services.”
The Gift of Giving
Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch Sr. is the pastor for New Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, on the West Side, where it’s built a long-standing relationship within the African-American community.
“Dr. Wilson has been pushing the envelope. It shows how it would look if other people in the private sector took interest in these issues — pushing public officials. What Dr. Wilson is doing is showing how simple this issue is to resolve. There are people that are in there for a long period of time because they or their families can’t come up with a few hundred dollars to get them out.”
Over the past 50 years, Rev. Hatch’s family has gone into the jails with care packages that started under his father, the late Rev. Elijah Hatch, and now under his leadership, bringing ministry to the correctional centers.
“It’s not helping them or their families and the responsibilities they have. It’s not helping the criminal-justice system that is overcrowded. We need to keep those places for criminals who are posing a danger to public safety, not for folks just because they are poor,” Hatch said. “It’s an important part of public policy.”
Born in Louisiana, Dr. Wilson admits his upbringing was very humble and poor. He learned early in his childhood the importance of giving and sharing — making sure no one went hungry and homeless.
He reflects on a part of his life that has stayed with him.
“We never saw hungry days in my life, but when we sat down, all we had to eat was some bread and some molasses. Momma would have to borrow from our neighbor one day, and the next day they would borrow from us,” he said.
“It was customary down South. Sometimes, we didn’t have any food, so we would walk down the road and go to somebody’s house and sit down to eat. This always stayed with me. I’ve been giving all of my life.”
Dr. Wilson and his wife have helped release 111 detainees from Cook County Jail since last week. With his new outreach organization, the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, he is working with Rev. Hatch to invite the group and their families to New Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church ”Community Thanksgiving Day” dinner.
“When Dr. Wilson came up with getting the folks out to do a Thanksgiving dinner for them and their families, I told him we’re already hosting one. We’ll just expand our capacity to serve, and that’s how that came about,” said Rev. Hatch.
The church has hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the past 10 years with volunteers helping to serve families, extending their ongoing clothing ministry and boutique for the day.
Hatch strongly believes the mission of the church should not only be within the walls of sanctuary, but to be a safe haven for those who are less fortunate. He’s seen the effects of the criminal-justice system run havoc on families in the Black and Brown communities.
“The church is to be the advocate of the poor. The criminal-justice system disproportionately disadvantages the poor. That becomes the part of the mission of the church. That’s the jail ministry. This is a very direct charge for the mission of the church. We can’t forget those that are incarcerated — even the guilty people.”
He says the jail is for holding people and the prison is for meeting out the appropriate sentence for the crime. “The jail means all of us are eligible to be a detainee any given day. You don’t have to break a law to be a detainee, you just have to be accused of a crime,” Hatch said.
“That means that Cook County Jail should be very humane and very sensitive to people who don’t pose a risk or a threat to the public.”
In addition, to inviting the detainees that Dr. Wilson helped release, he is giving each person $200 to assist them in their re-settlement. Thus far, $50,000 have gone to the bail release of former detainees.
Taking Closer Steps to Bail Reform
Dr. Wilson understands that helping to pay the bail cost for people will not necessarily cease the cause of why repeat violations happen. He and his team are working diligently to help those who are seeking assistance in providing shelter and later working with other organizations in the areas of addiction recovery and job training.
“We’re doing all we can do to set up an infrastructure if they don’t have a home to go to. We don’t know what a detainee does when they get out. We just know we do good and good can come out to help other people,” he said.
With the election season over and a new President-elect Trump being sworn in as our 45th U.S. president, the 100th Illinois State General Assembly will be preparing new legislation.
Rep. Ford has made it a priority to work on the bill to eliminate bail and encourages his colleagues to co-sponsor, but is hesitant on naming names — yet.
“The system will be updated after we’re sworn in for the 2017-18 General Assembly.” Ford says they can file something for the record but it will not likely move, although, he believes it can start the discussion. “If that happens, it can happen in the next week or two.”
Not being shy about his wealth, Dr. Wilson believes it’s a higher purpose for those to do something meaningful with their money.
“My mission is to create an example that our politicians and other people who have dollars would do some good in this area of humanitarianism,” he continued. “Sometimes they think minorities aren’t doing any good. No, there are a great deal of us doing good. I did it this time publicly so that people could see some good and try to inspire other people.”
Follow Mary L. Datcher on Twitter