During this episode of the Justice Today podcast, Mayor Jermaine Wilson describes his personal journey from maximum security prison to the highest elected office in his hometown, Leavenworth, Kansas.
Also read the corresponding blog post.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, otherwise known as OJP, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices, and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding science and technology help us achieve strong communities.
I'm your host Karen Friedman. I'm the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development and Engagement at OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance, otherwise known as BJA.
So, here's a story that might sound familiar. A boy is born in a small Midwestern town to a family with very little money or stability. He struggles, rises from poverty, and becomes a respected civic leader. He enters local politics and gets elected his hometown's mayor.
That is an accurate, but vastly incomplete, biographical sketch of our guest today, the Honorable Jermaine Wilson, who currently serves as Mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas. His story is anything but familiar.
Mayor Wilson was arrested for the first time at age 12. By age 15, he was serving time in a juvenile lockup. Not long after his release at 19, he was a gang member who was using and selling drugs. He would quickly be incarcerated again, this time as an adult, in a maximum-security facility.
That's where he changed the trajectory of his life. He got clean and seized the opportunities available to him, including enrolling in a program operated by the nonprofit organization Prison Fellowship. And after his release, he undertook the arduous task of building a life without drugs, gangs, or crime.
Today, Mayor Jermaine Wilson is a husband and a father of five children. He works as a regional executive with Prison Fellowship. And in 2017, he was the top vote-getter in his first bid for public office, becoming a member of Leavenworth's City Commission. Two years later, he was elected Mayor. Wow.
Mayor Wilson is here with us today to talk about his remarkable journey and what he has learned along the way. Thank you so much for being here today with us on Justice Today, Mayor Wilson.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Thank you for having me, ma'am. It's an honor and a privilege to be here with you today.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Thank you. I guess the first thing is, five children, huh?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Five kids, yes, ma'am.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I have four, so I know the struggle.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yes, ma'am.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: But each additional kid is like a world unto themselves. And it doesn't just add one mountain, it adds several. So, I applaud your bravery.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yeah. Each one of my kids represents a certain season of my life.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I hear that. Let's start by talking about your title, “Mayor.” You've been elected the top official in your hometown for several years now. But I wonder, how does that title feel? Have you gotten used to it? Did the young Jermaine Wilson ever say to himself, "Someday, I'm going to be Mayor Wilson?"
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: No. I always looked to myself as a leader growing up inside of my community. Now, with me getting elected to a second term, I feel more comfortable with the title.
Sometimes, it still catches me off-guard depending on who's saying it. If it's family members that I grew up with, saying "Hey, Mayor Wilson," I'm like, "Man, I'm just Jermaine. We’re family."
But I also look at the title as an opportunity to create change, and encourage and empower people to make a difference in their personal lives as well as in their community. So, when I hear “Mayor,” the first thing that comes to my mind is servant-leader. I don't look at myself as an individual that stands out against other people. Like, no. I'm with you all, I'm serving you all, and I work for you all. It really helps keep me humble overall.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Very well said. You know, I was a judge before I joined BJA, and I felt the same way about that very ominous title.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yeah.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So, I totally understand how you feel about that. Now, you've traveled an enormous distance in your life, but physically you've always stayed close to Leavenworth. Tell us a bit about how you grew up and what led you into some trouble at a young age.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Well, as I think we all have heard, you become a product of your environment, and that's how it was for me. I actually became a product of my environment. It just so happened the environment I was raised in was an environment of drugs and violence and being exposed to crime and drugs at an early age. It influenced my way of thinking because I saw it every single day.
To me, it seemed like it was a normal behavior. Because I was exposed to it every single day, I didn't know it was bad, because it was so accepted inside of my neighborhood. So, I began to participate in that behavior, and no one ever told me I was doing wrong until I encountered law enforcement. That's when I started to realize the lifestyle that I was living and what I was exposed to were not accepted by society.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right. And in that neighborhood, being a tough guy earned you the respect and status that you were looking for and that most young people crave, right?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yes.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: How did that cycle influence your behavior?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Growing up, I dealt with insecurities. I always wanted to be accepted and valued by my peers. It was the drug dealers and the gang members, those were the ones that were respected and looked up to in my neighborhood. So, that attention they were getting, that was the attention that I wanted for myself. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be looked at as the cool individual.
I learned a long time ago, eventually you turn into the things you tune into. I was so focused on that drug dealing, that gang members' lifestyle and behavior, I began to conform to those same behaviors. And that led to a life of pain, heartache, misery.
I lost myself in the midst of trying to be like everybody else. I became selfish. Even though I had the material things and I got the attention, I realized, deep down I was empty inside. I would use drugs and alcohol to cover my true emotions. It was the only way that I could cope with my surroundings at the time.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: At age 19, you found yourself addicted and doing time in a maximum-security facility. But while you were incarcerated, you were able to make a complete U-turn in your life. I would love for our listeners to know how that came about, what that process was like.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: When I was incarcerated at 19, I began to sober up, and I really started to reflect over my life. Once you have a sober mind, you can think clearly. And I saw the pattern. My dad had been in prison, my sister was in prison, my brother was in prison, now I'm sitting in prison. I realized I have an 8-month-old son who needs his father. If I don't change, he's going to end up following in my same footsteps. He's going to end up going to prison as well.
When I realized that I did not want that for my son, I knew I had to change my behavior. I knew I needed to be present with my son. Because—you may know this—kids don't necessarily listen to what parents say, but they do exactly what their parents are doing. So, that's when I made the decision to give my life to God. I wanted something different out of life. I had tried everything else and had failed.
I signed up for a Christian program called Prison Fellowship. That was one of the main programs I participated in during my incarceration. I saw myself as a leader, an individual that knows there's a leader inside of me, and so I started reading books and attending classes. John Maxwell had a leadership course called "Developing the Leader Within." And there was "21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership." I wanted to be a father, so I started reading fatherhood books and attended fatherhood classes.
We all know the importance of money. But without being educated about money, money serves no purpose. So, I began to attend financial literacy classes. I learned how to read while I was in prison, enhanced my vocabulary, and even attended community college—English 1 class, which is still one of the hardest classes for me—but I participated in it. I also got involved in mentoring programs.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's amazing. Wow. Let's talk about Prison Fellowship for a minute. You know that really helped you enormously. And now you work for them, which is pretty amazing.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yeah.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Tell us a little bit about the organization and your role, and how it helped you, and how you're using that role now to help others.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Prison Fellowship is the nation's largest Christian nonprofit organization serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. And it’s a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. The Academy, which is a 12-month program that I participated in, helped to identify good values. I learned how to deal with conflict resolution. I learned how to set healthy boundaries. I think boundaries are important for each individual. And I learned how to be responsible by taking ownership of my actions, not blaming anyone else for my mistakes, and becoming who God created me to be.
Prison Fellowship also has an Angel Tree Program where we equip churches and strengthen relationships between incarcerated parents and their children. This program is amazing because even though the parent is not physically there in their child's life, we have churches that are willing to get gifts and give to the children on behalf of the parents. I think many of us can attest that being a parent, you want to be a protector and you want to be a provider. You may not physically be there with your children, but you have an opportunity to provide. During Christmas time, kids are always expecting a gift. I had the opportunity to be able to give a gift to my son, even though I wasn't physically there, through the Angel Tree Program.
Prison Fellowship also believes that we are all called not just to restore broken lives but to rescind broken systems and laws. We equip people of faith to advocate for justice reform and to advance proportional punishment, constructive corrections culture, and second chances. I'm living my second chance right now at this moment. It just so happens this is Second Chance Month. So, to be in this place, and to share my journey, and to give that to other individuals that have similar backgrounds like I had, it's beautiful and amazing.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's awesome. You started talking about finances and money. And that's always a struggle when people are released from incarceration. When you were released, I believe your first job was washing dishes and you earned about $8 an hour. That's a struggle, right?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yes.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I would love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about how you traveled up that economic ladder, and some of the barriers that you encountered that made that really difficult.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: The biggest challenge that I had once I transitioned from incarceration back into society was finding a job. Many times, I was told no. I had the experience, had the skillset, but I also had a criminal record which automatically eliminated me from pursuing that job. Many times I tried with different employers. But I had to settle with a job that was an hour away from Leavenworth, and I had to work with my mother-in-law. We ended up working at a dry cleaner.
They gave me an opportunity and a second chance, even though the pay wasn't enough to cover my bills. I had to work with the opportunity that was given to me. I didn't have transportation, so my schedule was based on my mother-in-law. That became very challenging. I worked that job for six months. The moment that I wasn't able to go to work because my mother-in-law decided she was sick that day, they told me if I didn’t find a way to come, I would lose my job. I only had that job for six months.
The resources that I had weren't enough to cover my bills, which made it very difficult for me to be able to remain in the house that I was in. When it was time for me to look for another house, it was a challenge because I had that record, and there were so many homeowners that didn't want to give me that opportunity, because they were afraid of what the neighbors may think.
Transportation was a challenge, finding employment was a challenge, and also housing. It took my pastor to give me the opportunity to find the right housing, which helped me find a stable place for my family.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: You really touched in that one answer on all of the challenges that I hear from people who are being released from incarceration. Housing's huge. Transportation's huge. Employment's huge. All those are huge hurdles for people who are getting out and are trying to reintegrate into the community in a successful, productive way.
You spoke earlier about how you had been incarcerated, your father was incarcerated, your sister was incarcerated, and your brother was incarcerated. I want to shine a light on the fact that you were able to break that cycle. Because when your children see your success, that's what their role model looks like. You've broken the cycle for them to succeed.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Thank you. An individual giving me an opportunity, a second chance, allowed me to give my children a first chance. They will never, ever in their life experience poverty the way that I did. They won't be exposed to the criminal lifestyle that I was once exposed to. They are seeing what success looks like. They're seeing what hard work looks like.
Because Dad is constantly working, Dad is constantly serving and giving back to his community, and exemplifying what true love looks like, my kids are exposed to positivity and productivity. That is going to help lead and guide their lives, because they're seeing something different. Because they are seeing something that I was unfamiliar with, it's really giving them hope and giving them an opportunity to figure out which direction they want to go in life. Because they’ve seen a positive role model set the example for them.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Now, I know that you were doing a lot of volunteer work in the Leavenworth community, and then you decided to run for public office.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yeah.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: A glutton for punishment. Did you worry about going public with your own personal story? And how were you received at the beginning when people were getting to know all about you?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: That is a great question, Karen. To be frank with you, I learned while I was in prison that I have to take ownership of my mistakes and I have to own my own story. Because if I want other individuals to accept me, I have to first learn to accept myself and what I went through in life. So, when that opportunity came for me to get involved in public office, I was not ashamed or afraid to share my story. It helped that, once I got released, I started going to different juvenile facilities, schools, and churches and shared my story. Because I really genuinely did not want people to make the same mistakes that I made.
Sometimes in life, if you tell a person what you did and give them an opportunity to ask questions about what you experienced, maybe it will prevent them from wanting to experience it themselves. They want to learn from your mistakes. Being proactive with sharing my story, giving people an opportunity to learn about me, was always important. Because I don't want anybody to do research and find out something that I didn't share with them. You can't tell on a person that's telling on himself.
The moment that I put my story out there, some people were open and receptive to it, and some weren't. There was this 10 percent that were extremely loud that did not like the fact that a former felon ended up receiving the most votes, not only during the primary but during the general election. But the other 90 were open and receptive. One lady made this comment, she said, "We need a person that is willing to be truthful and honest. We need a man of integrity that doesn't give in to what people think. Because that's the problem with politics today. We don't have it.” So, I appreciated that. That gave me the peace that I needed to continue to move forward.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: They appreciate when people are forthcoming. Honesty goes a long way. You've won two elections now and you've been at the top of the ticket both times. I guess you must be a pretty good politician, huh?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: I like to use the words “public servant.”
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: “Politician” has that negative wording surrounding it. It's really about serving the community, giving back. One thing I always share with individuals, you never know what you are until you've encountered what you are not. I experienced being someone I wasn't created to be, and I failed at those things. At the moment I became who God wanted me to be, I began to succeed, I began to prosper, and everything that I set my mind to, I was able to accomplish.
I learned from my mistakes. The mistakes that I made in my past, I realized, were not a life sentence. I had an opportunity to learn. I had an opportunity to make a difference and do something different in life. As I continue to move forward in my political career, my goal is to encourage and empower people, and let them know, hey, together we can make a difference. You can accomplish anything that you put your mind to. If you dream it and have faith, you'll be able to see it and believe and act on what you want to accomplish in your life.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Wow. Very well said. As you know, April is Second Chance Month.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Uh-hmm.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: You got a second chance and made the very best of it. How do we encourage other people who get their second chance to take advantage of it?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: It starts at the top, it starts with leadership. I think it's important that we work to remove government barriers to housing, education, and work that don't make the community safer. Don't look at people’s past mistakes. Look at their qualifications, look at who they are and see if they're capable of doing the work.
A lot of times we prepare returning citizens for society. But are we really preparing society for returning citizens? I think that's something that we definitely want to do. We can't stop changing laws. We all have a part to play in creating a culture of second chance. Work with our local churches. Work with the organizations that are on the frontlines serving and welcoming individuals back into our communities.
I definitely want to give a shout out to Prison Fellowship. For those that are interested in getting involved, I encourage you all to visit unlocksecondchances.org and learn how you can partner with Prison Fellowship to promote second chances. Not just during the month of April, but beyond. There's 12 months in a calendar year and there normally are 30 days each month. Every single day, we have to work toward creating the changes that are needed for our community and our nation.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So, say one more time for everyone listening, and for myself, what you said about getting the community ready. I love that.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yes, ma'am. We have to prepare society for returning citizens. Because a lot of times, we prepare returning citizens for society, but we have to prepare society for returning citizens as well.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So, any thoughts about how we could better do that?
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Yes, ma'am. Definitely wording, the way that we identify returning citizens. They're not convicts, they're not felons. They're individuals who made a mistake. When they return to society, let's remove the labels. Let's remove calling this person a felon. Look at this person as his name, not just a number, not just a mistake that he's made.
When you interview this person—this is to employers—look at the person who is standing in front of you, not her criminal record. Ask questions, give them a fair chance, give them an opportunity. I always want people to remember, if no one ever gave you an opportunity, would you be where you're at today?
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Someone gave you an opportunity, so give the same opportunity to someone else. You'll be surprised how that person could help your business, serve the community, or impact you in your own personal life. That is really important. It's about labeling, and it's about providing opportunities, and about sharing your resources, and just giving people a second chance in life. Always ask the question. "If nobody would've given me a chance, would I be where I'm at today?" The reason that I'm here in this position is because somebody believed in me and gave me a chance.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's really insightful. Thank you so much, Mayor Wilson, for joining me here today and taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom. It's just been such a pleasure talking with you today.
MAYOR JERMAINE WILSON: Thank you so much.
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