Ex-Felon Lance Wilson Shares Prison Experience As He Counts Down To End Of His Parole
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
October 5 isn’t Lance Wilson’s birthday or anniversary, but the date has major significance for the Bay Area activist. It’s the day Wilson, 38, gets his ankle monitor removed. The device is a physical reminder of his recent incarceration and to say Wilson can’t wait to rid himself of it is an understatement. He started the countdown months ago and as the date approaches, his anticipation is palpable.
Freedom has been a long time coming and Wilson knows exactly what he’s going to do the minute the ankle monitor comes off. He’s going fishing with his father, Mack.
“My dad turns 90 this year and by the grace of God, he’s still alive,” says Wilson, who lives in Albany.
Mack Wilson is in the early stages of dementia, but his youngest son believes the elder man has held on to see him fully returned from the system. Being on the ankle monitor has meant the two haven’t been able to spend much time together. It also took him three months to get permission to visit his oldest brother when he was dying from stage 4 prostate cancer.
“The only thing I can do is go to and from work. That’s it,” Wilson says.
Lance is the youngest of seven brothers. Each has taken their own direction in life. While Wilson says he was “raised right,” his path has been vastly different, in particular contrast to the two siblings who are attorneys.
The year was 2015 and while he’d been on law enforcement’s radar before, Wilson says he’d never actually been arrested. His first time would be a doozy – a drug-related conspiracy charge. To use urban vernacular, Wilson got caught up. According to him, his girlfriend, her aunt and best friend were masterminding a scheme involving stolen prescription pads and pills.
“I wasn’t involved in that. That was her thing,” he says of his then lover. “I had a job. I was doing my own thing. This was something she had going on, I want to say a year and a half to two years prior to me even getting with her.”
Even though the father of his girlfriend’s son was “reaping the benefits” from the illegal activity, he became jealous that she’d moved on, according to Wilson, and made an “anonymous” tip to the police about her activities. In snitching on her, the boyfriend threw in embellished details about her new man, Wilson, accusing him of helping her sell the pilfered pills.
After being tipped off, officials opened an investigation and placed a tracking device on vehicles owned by the girlfriend, aunt and best friend. After a period of surveillance, an indictment was filed against them all.
“Everybody knows the feds are meticulous,” Wilson says. “They watch everything and when they come to get you, they already have a case built.”
Meticulous and accurate aren’t always one and the same, but Wilson found himself facing a dilemma, one that many Black men in America face: take a plea deal or no? Behind bars, he mulled over that question in his head day and night.
“I knew I was not guilty, but I had no choice. That’s how I felt,” Wilson says.
“That’s the whole game they play. They threaten you and they have you so scared and it’s like, what do you do? I’m thinking in my head, ‘What if they offered me six or seven years and I didn’t take it and I took it to trial and lost and I get 20 years?’ I’d feel like boo-boo the fool.
“I had to weigh my options. The best thing I could do is take the plea. It’s not like a state charge, especially on a nonviolent crime. With a state charge you do a little bit of your time and then you’re out. But with the feds, you’re doing 85% of the time and it doesn’t matter if it’s a violent crime, nonviolent, whatever, you’re doing 85% of your time,” Wilson says.
The prosecutor in the case agreed to 70 months, the “low end” of guidelines associated with Wilson’s charges. The judge, however, had other ideas and instead of giving Wilson a little under six years, sentenced him to 96 months, or eight years, which was more time than the suggested guidelines.
“I feel like he went beyond that because I was a Black man,” Wilson says. “He was a senior judge. He gave off the look and vibe of an old, white plantation owner.”
What Had Happened Was …
While Wilson grew up poor, he says he comes from a “good family.” Dad was a Vietnam veteran and mom died when he was just 10.
I often tell people when you go to prison, it feels like you’re almost dead to the world. Even though you may have so many friends, life goes on. People don’t have time to keep up with you or check in with you.
“I have brothers that are successful. They’re lawyers now, but everybody takes their own path. I took my own path,” Wilson says. “I could have been a doctor, I could have been all that. I was hanging out, hanging around the wrong people, doing the wrong stuff. That’s just the path I chose. I did a lot of stuff in my life that I’m not proud of doing, but at the same time, I’m not a violent person. I never went out there doing violent stuff or anything like that. I sold marijuana. That was my thing.
“What amazes me is that you got all these pedophiles, you got all these people that do all these violent crimes and the majority of them don’t get anything but a slap on the wrist. I was in prison with all these guys who had been in prison for years for a couple of bags of crack. It’s just because this was the color of our skin. It’s the way it works. With me actually going into prison and seeing how everything works, everything is just so bad. There’s no reform. There’s no rehabilitation. It’s almost as if they want you to come out worse than when you got in there because they want to keep you in that system.”
Behind bars, Wilson quickly began to learn “how the game goes.” In addition to everyday prison culture that could mean the difference between life and death, he’d also find out that things would get a bit more complicated for him: he had an old gun charge hanging over his head.
“Back in, like, 2013 I was with one of my brothers and he got pulled over and he had some drugs on him and had a gun on him, so when they pulled us over, Fresno County charged both of us with the drugs and the gun, even though my brother said it was him driving the car,” Wilson says.
He says he didn’t know the gun charges were still pending two years later. Having a gun enhancement would play a role in where he was housed while incarcerated.
“Everything is about categories and numbers in there. They kept me in there with the high mediums. With high medium, typically you see the majority of people in there with 25 years plus.”
Sentenced to eight years, Wilson was given the nickname “Short-Timer.” Advocating for himself, Wilson eventually got the gun enhancement dropped, but the challenges continued to reveal themselves. He also found out that his high school diploma was invalid because the private school he’d attended wasn’t accredited. That took him down in points that could help him gain release faster.
“I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” he recalls.
Wilson was made to take GED classes.
“It’s all about the money in there. They want you to go into their GED program because they get paid the more people they have in their little school. Then on top of that, they want to draw it out. If you don’t have a GED, they want you to take a year or two to get your GED because they’re getting paid.”
Wilson wanted to take the test straight away, but says the teacher didn’t initially allow him to. His persistence changed the man’s mind. Wilson did well and was offered a job in the education department tutoring fellow inmates. He took advantage of the chance to take college courses – and time off his sentence.
“I was just trying to do anything I could to stay out of the way and get home because it’s so easy to get caught up in prison,” he says. “People think it’s bad on the streets, but in prison, it’s 10 times worse. When you’re in prison, there’s so much stuff going on. It’s like your back’s up against the wall and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
During his incarceration, Wilson moved around to a number of federal prisons from Lompoc to Long Beach, trying to lower restrictions at each facility.
“I just kept fighting and fighting them,” he says.
One of his brothers, Jacque Wilson, a San Francisco public defender, started a campaign to bring him home, gathering letters from some 1,000 people, asking for his release.
“These are big people writing letters and they’re well connected in the community,” Wilson says.
Jacque Wilson also aided in the release of another of their brothers. Neko Wilson was 27 when he was charged with the 2009 murder of a white Central Valley couple, Gary and Sandra DeBartolo.
Prosecutors argued that while Neko didn’t actually pull the trigger, he was just as responsible for their deaths because he helped plan the robbery that led to the slayings. They were backed up at the time by California’s felony murder rule. Neko maintained his innocence and denied involvement. His father and brother believed him, and in him, and vowed to get him out of jail.
A Second Chance
Jacque Wilson challenged prosecutors and, at his father’s urging, advocated for reexamination and reform of California’s felony murder law. Many argued that the rule was used disproportionately to prosecute defendants of color.
Jacque Wilson fought for the passage of Senate Bill 1437, which was authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner and changed laws about who could be convicted as an aider and abettor in a murder case. It also meant that people who’d been convicted of murder under the old laws could ask the court to be resentenced on a less serious felony. Another related bill, SB 775, was passed in 2021.
Jacque Wilson’s efforts kept Neko from actually going to trial; he stayed in jail for nine years while the case was litigated. SB 1437 passed in 2018 and prosecutors dropped their murder case against Neko Wilson. A deal for lesser charges and time served had him walking free.
Since that time, more than 600 individuals have had an approximate 11,353 years taken off their sentences. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that 41% of the resentenced defendants were Black, 39% were Latino and approximately 12% were white. Twenty-five individuals were incarcerated in Sacramento County.
Jacque also connected Lance with William Fitzgerald, a former Google employee who started the Worker Agency, a Berkeley-based public relations firm that works with other nonprofits, progressive organizations, social justice champions and labor groups to help amplify the sense of urgency around their causes.
Fitzgerald got Bay Area news media to feature Wilson in a few articles. He also had a podcast and started interviewing Wilson while he was in prison, asking him about conditions. Their conversations garnered millions of views.
“He was just trying to shed light about what’s going on and that this isn’t right,” Wilson says.
Fitzgerald got to know Wilson when he was housed at Lompoc’s federal prison. “He shared what working in the fields for pennies was like and how scary it was to be locked up during COVID,” Fitzgerald says.
Upon learning Wilson was being released to home confinement, Fitzgerald asked what he planned to do when he got out. Wilson said he’d probably work at Amazon because he’d heard they hired formerly incarcerated people.
“I thought to myself that maybe he would be good at public relations and asked if he would be interested in coming to my firm, the Worker Agency, to learn the ropes,” Fitzgerald says.
In taking him under his wing, Fitzgerald put Wilson ahead of the game. According to the Department of Justice, 60% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed a year after their release. The Biden administration encouraged such employment in 2022, declaring April to be Second Chance Month.
“America is a nation of second chances,” wrote President Joe Biden. “It is critical that our criminal and juvenile justice systems provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption.”
“Hiring Lance was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a small business owner,” Fitzgerald says. “He has a bright future ahead of him in the field of public relations and I’m excited to see him continue to learn the skills on the job and take on more responsibilities.”
Joy In The Fight For Justice
Among Wilson’s clients with the Worker Agency is the Anti-Police Terror Project, which is based in Sacramento and Oakland. He often sends out press releases on behalf of the co-founders and their efforts to raise awareness of police brutality in the Black community and the need for mental health resources in 9-1-1 calls. Having been in the belly of the beast, Wilson has a vested interest in policy reform and is working to ensure change.
“Criminal justice and social justice reform, I’m all about that and being part of that,” he says. “Just being able to help these organizations, getting them in the news and bringing their stories to light, I just get such joy from it.”
Anti-Police Terror Project’s Sacramento-based co-founder Asantewaa Boykin was introduced to Wilson upon reaching out in hopes of having the profile of her first book of activism-related poetry elevated.
“His willingness to jump into the unknown was inspiring,” Boykin says. “The more I learned about Lance and his journey, the more I became inspired by him. He not only worked on my behalf, but he taught me how to do the work myself.”
“Since joining the team, [Lance] has grown into an effective communications professional,” Fitzgerald says. “He has a really positive attitude and no matter what problem presents itself, he finds a way to get the work done and to deliver excellent results for our clients. Every single client he’s worked with has praised his work.
“What’s most impressive about this is that he’s managed to do this despite the obstacles he faced. The people who oversee his home confinement make it incredibly difficult for him to do his job. On a given day they might call him at the last minute, early in the morning, to do a drug test, and then in the middle of work hours, they’ll call him for a meeting with his case manager. They have been really punitive and restrictive of his movements, making it difficult for Lance to meet with partners, attend press conferences, and networking events.”
While on the ankle monitor, Wilson spends a lot of his time on pins and needles.
“One wrong move and I’m back in prison,” he says.
He recalls being late to work one day while getting a ride from his brother. He received a phone call from the halfway house wanting to know his whereabouts. He was instructed to return immediately, was written up and given a serious infraction called a “100 series shot.”
“They charged me with an escape,” Wilson says.
Such wording can trigger adverse responses by law enforcement that could get a Black man killed. He was cleared by a subsequent investigation, but still penalized.
“They didn’t make me go back to prison, but they took away 30 good days,” Wilson says.
Wilson has also had to get permission to shop for groceries, to visit his barber to remain groomed for work and to go to the gym to reverse the physical effects of years in prison. Restrictions have also threatened his efforts to be an involved dad, but he remains focused on eliminating any roadblocks as they pop up.
“It’s so crazy how the system works,” he says. “You come out of prison and you need a support system. The majority of people don’t have anything. They don’t have a support system. They don’t have family. It’s so easy for them just to make one little rogue step and then you’re right back into prison.
“I was lucky and blessed to have a support system, but I feel like if I didn’t have the support system, I would have been back in. It’s just so easy to slip up if you don’t have the resources.”
Wilson says he has had to “fight tooth and nail” to reach his current point.
“Not a lot of people are as persistent,” he says. “A lot of people just give up once they say no. When people say no, I’m back in the lab thinking about how I can get things to move the way I need so I can be successful. I’m not trying to do anything wrong, but they’re not setting you up for success.”
Wilson says people often marvel at his fortitude. “People I work around always ask me, ‘How do you do it? or say ‘I would have folded and cracked a long time ago.’
Wilson’s response is simple.
“I just keep my head up,” he says. “I keep pushing forward every day. At the end of the day, I don’t expect anybody to do anything for me. I’ve got to do it myself. I don’t give up. I was raised that way.”
Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.