While politicians on occasion end up in prison for wrongdoing of one sort or another, Jermaine Wilson took the opposite path. He made it from prison to politics, now serving as the recently appointed mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas
And it’s an inspirational story that shows how someone can turn their life around and use their prison experience to create a better community.
Trouble started early for Wilson. Although raised in a church-going family, he was rebellious, ran away from home and committed his first crime at age 11. After spending six years in juvenile facilities, he returned to his old neighborhood and his so-called friends and started hustling drugs. One night about 18 months later in 2007 he was stopped by a police officer who found drugs in his car, was arrested for possession and ended up spending three years at the Lansing Correctional Facility on a felony conviction.
Dramatic life change in prison
But it was there that Wilson decided to make a drastic change in his life. “I called out to God and accepted the Lord in prison. And for the first time in my life I felt free,” he says. “I started to read the Bible. I started a business plan and came up with the idea of a nonprofit.”
After he was released in 2010, Wilson returned to the prison where he spent time and became a mentor to inmates. He visited churches and the juvenile facility to tell his story.
In 2015, his record was expunged, and he created Unity in the Community, a nonprofit similar to the one that he dreamed up while in prison.
“There was so much racial tension in our society, so we created an organization where whites, blacks and law enforcement could work together so that things would be good,” Wilson says. “We started feeding the homeless and mentoring the youth. A basketball event with the youth versus the local law enforcement got lots of people involved. We wanted everyone to know that it doesn’t matter what your race or occupation might be, but we’re in this together.”
As a result of the work he was doing, people told Wilson that he would be a good leader in the community and asked if he’d ever considered running for public office. No. He hadn’t but decided to try. In 2017 he received the most votes in the election for a spot on the Leavenworth City Commission.
Wilson was appointed mayor pro tem last year and the city’s mayor in January. And he didn’t waste any time putting together an agenda to help those who suffered similar experiences to his own. On his second day in office, Wilson launched a county-wide expungement for all those who were eligible.
“I partnered with the prosecutor. Lawyers provided services pro bono so they could get it done for free. The only charge will be the $190 court fee, which will be waived if applicants can’t afford it,” he says
Fifty people went through the process. The prosecutor processed the applications in mid-March, and court dates are being set.
Prison experience makes him a different sort of politician
There’s no doubt that Wilson is a unique mayor, and he feels his prison experience makes him so. “I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what’s it like to be at rock bottom,” he says. “It helps me to be a voice of the voiceless. With that experience I won’t forget people. I’ll be a representative for all of the people not just one particular group.”
Although his term as mayor only lasts one year, Wilson has other projects he’d like to accomplish. He’d love to get a transitional home for those in reentry and is currently looking for funding. He’d also like to increase the number of entertainment businesses in town, so residents don’t head for Kansas City malls. And, by the way, the north side of Leavenworth needs a grocery store.
Advice for others
What advice does Wilson have for other formerly incarcerated individuals who might want to consider getting involved in politics?
“A lot of us become a product of our environment. If you want be successful don’t be influenced by the things that are around you but be inspired by what’s inside you,” he says. “If you truly want to make a difference serve at every level and every opportunity that’s given to you. The reason that I say that is that I never had any aspirations, but the opportunity was given to me, and I served. And that has opened doors.”
$10-$20 can make a difference and provide funding to send job search books to prison and jail libraries and expand our tattoo removal outreach.