David Wilson

David Wilson wasn’t a gang member when he was sent to prison in 1978 with an indeterminate sentence for murder. But he quickly realized the need for alliances, however potentially destructive, while in the system. “You had to be affiliated with somebody back then – for insurance,” he explains. “I spent the majority of my time just trying to stay one step ahead of my enemies.”

Far from a model prisoner, Wilson was frequently issued “disciplinary tickets” and spent a great deal of time in segregation. He, like many prisoners, experienced the pain of losing loved ones while incarcerated. “There’s a feeling of helplessness when your parents die,” he remembers sadly, “and you can’t go to the funeral.” At one of his 11 unsuccessful parole board hearings, he got a different view of himself – one that he found shocking. “They called me ‘atrocious,’” he recalls. “I had to look it up later. It said, ‘savage-like.’” He was so shattered that he began to question the very reason for his existence.

Nor was that his only setback; he was stabbed 23 times by a fellow inmate. He realized that his prospects were grim: die young or, if he was lucky, spend the rest of a life hardly worth living behind bars. It was an epiphanic realization that changed the course of his life. He gradually and cautiously began to distance himself from gang members and, instead, sought to earn the trust of prison staff. He accepted the most menial tasks without complaint, from buffing floors to unclogging toilets. He consciously removed the chip from his shoulder, replacing it with newfound humility, strength and grace. And he found himself beginning to flourish as he never had experienced.

“I released the hatred and resentment,” he reveals, “and it uplifted my spirit – it made me feel more human.” Early support came from unexpected sources. Members of an Amish community, which initiated a correspondence with him quite by chance, soon became a lifeline to the outside world. Their appreciation and gratitude for such God-given gifts as beautiful sunsets and the fragrance of dogwood blossoms penetrated his shell and deepened his spirituality and appreciation for natural beauty, which he had long since buried and forgotten. Wilson found himself becoming a completely different person.

A second unexpected link to the outside world changed the course of his life even more dramatically. A corrections guard at Stateville, who witnessed Wilson’s pronounced turnaround in the 1990s, extended his hand in friendship, a supporting relationship that was to continue for many years — even after the officer left his corrections job. And when Wilson’s twelfth parole hearing came up, that guard drove 150 miles through a torrential rainstorm to make an appearance, and promised to provide Wilson with employment and support.

Perhaps struck by the unusual alliance between guard and prisoner, the board granted Wilson’s parole. Upon his release, true to his promise, Wilson was immediately hired into his friend’s window-well cover business. He learned the ropes quickly and was soon promoted to the job of Production Manager. He stayed out of trouble and within seven months of his release, had saved enough money to make the down payment on a small apartment building. Wilson became a landlord.

He continued to work in his friend’s company until it was eventually dissolved. Undeterred, however, he then started his own company, Quality Home Products, and entered the manufacturing sector. An exclusive contract with a large co-op put the company on track for referrals, and Wilson, with an eye on supplying national home improvement retailers, is confident that his business will continue to grow and prosper. Mild-mannered and articulate, Wilson is more than comfortable in the business world.

Good fortune continued to smile on Wilson. In yet another remarkable twist, he met and married Dawn, a former 25-year employee of the Department of Corrections. (They were not acquainted during his incarceration, but rather actually met through a personal ad.) They both readily acknowledge that fate had a hand in their meeting and courtship. “You don’t surprise God,” he insists. They now have an adopted son.

Wilson still marvels at the changes in himself and his circumstances. “I’m really enjoying a side of life I never knew existed,” he says. “I even started wearing suits” to business functions and charity events, which he attends regularly.

Today, the fear of dying young or, perhaps at best, facing a lifelong existence behind bars has given way to a life rich in love and opportunity. “I haven’t had a bad day since my release,” he says. “You just have to be thankful for every day you wake up.” And, he might add, for everyone who lends support along the way, like beloved family and uncommon friends.