Chris Wilson: A Master Plan For All
As a minor, Chris Wilson was sentenced to natural life in prison for taking another man’s life. Refusing to accept that as his fate, Chris came up with a plan to reinvent his life, which led to his release 16 years later. In 2019, Chris published his book The Master Plan and dedicated his life to getting it into every single prison in America. His story offers a roadmap for those whose lives are directly impacted by the criminal justice system, as well as anyone who wants to make a major change in their work or personal lives. Chris has channelled his success as an author, entrepreneur, and visual artist into a continued effort to inspire others to never give up.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a police officer. I remember meeting Officer Friendly when he came to our elementary school and learning about his role in getting to know the community, the families there, and mediating conflict. I thought it was a pretty cool job because you’re helping everyone in the community. Growing up, that was the role I wanted to play. I wanted to be there to help my community.
As I got older I realized that, at least in my community, the police didn’t protect and serve or keep my community safe. In my neighborhood there would often be shootings. I saw people get shot or killed right in front of me. When people did call the police, they would take 35 minutes to arrive, and when they did they would tape off the scene and just leave the person laid out for us to see. I never understood why they did that. They just treated us differently, and so growing up I started developing this image of the police of them not being the protectors or the good guys.
I was around 14 years old when everything changed for me. My mom was dating a D.C. police officer who was physically and verbally abusive towards her. One day he just attacked us. He sexually assaulted my mom and knocked me unconscious. This was someone who was supposed to be protecting us, protecting the community, and he was abusing his power. After my mom was attacked, I watched her change almost overnight. She fell into a deep depression and got addicted to her pain pills. She started drinking and eventually doing drugs. She never recovered. She couldn’t work anymore, and so we pretty much lost everything.
Her attacker lost his job as a police officer, but he served very minimal time in prison as a result of his actions. When he was released, he started stalking our family. He would break into our house through the garage and come through the attic and fall through the ceiling. He’d sit out in front of our house. He would call and tell us, “One by one we will take you guys out.” It was terrifying and there were no laws about stalking that could help us. There was really nothing we could do about it, so I started carrying a gun and implementing protocols with my siblings that would ensure we never left my mom in the house alone.
“While I was awaiting trial, some people tortured my brother. They carved him up with a butcher knife. Then they killed my dad. I found out about it on the news from my jail cell.”
One night, I went to go to the store and I noticed two men in front of the house that were watching me. I knew they weren’t from my neighborhood. So I started walking towards the store where there were a lot of people. I thought if I went over there and just stood in the light that they wouldn’t do anything to me. I had my gun on me but I didn’t want to use it.
Eventually, these people approached me and said, “Are you Chris? We’ve been watching you. We’ve been following your family. Don’t think for a second that you are safe. At any moment that we want to do something to you, we can.”
One of the guys kept trying to get behind me while the other one was talking to me. Once he got behind me, I just panicked. I started firing my gun at him. Then they ran in one direction, and I ran in another. I found out later that I had taken a person’s life. The guy I shot had passed away.
Around two weeks later, I was arrested. As a 17-year-old, I was charged as an adult and was sent to an adult jail pending trial. While I was awaiting trial, some people tortured my brother. They carved him up with a butcher knife. Then they killed my dad. I found out about it on the news from my jail cell.
When I finally had my trial, I was found guilty, charged with first-degree murder, and sentenced to natural life in prison. At this point, I had just turned 18 and it crushed me. Once I was sentenced, they put me into solitary confinement for a while, with almost no human interaction. Even the correctional officers wouldn’t talk to me. I just cried. I sat in my cell for days and days and weeks and just couldn’t believe that my life was over. How do you start a sentence with no end date?
I went into a deep depression. They had transferred me to a maximum security prison and once I got there I saw people who had sentences like mine who had been there for 30 to 40 years. It really messed with my mind. They were essentially telling me to just get comfortable because you don’t get out of a life sentence. It was around this time I met a person called Steven, who also had a life sentence. He changed the way I looked at things.
“Steven tapped the side of his head and said, ‘They took everything from us. But they can never take knowledge away from us, things that we learn.”
I first saw Steven sitting out in the rec room teaching himself computer programming. He was writing code out on pieces of paper. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “I’m teaching myself computer programming and I’m going to get out of prison and start a software company.” I remember laughing at him and I said, “Dude, you don’t even have a computer. How are you going to pull this off?” He tapped the side of his head and said, “They took everything from us. But they can never take knowledge away from us, things that we learn. The system can’t take that stuff from us, and that’s my plan to get out of prison.” I thought about that for a couple of days.
I didn’t want to commit the crime that I had committed. I knew I was a good person. I said to myself, “I got to prove to myself and to everyone else that my life is redeemable.” That’s when I locked myself into my cell and I pulled out sheets of paper and I started writing up what I call my Master Plan, which was essentially a goal to educate myself. I wanted to learn Spanish and how to start a business that would one day make a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to write a book and travel around the world. I wanted financial independence. But most importantly, I wanted to be free again. I wanted to be free to return to the communities like the ones that I grew up in and become a positive influence for folks. I wrote it all up and I sent a copy to my judge and a copy to my Grandmother.
Steven, who was very book smart, had started tutoring me. He had these interesting ways of teaching me things which involved me getting competitive with myself. I got my high school diploma in prison in two and a half months. This was validation. Then I moved on, and so it actually started building up my self-confidence and I started believing that I was intelligent. I was like, “Well, what else can I learn?” That’s when I got into a vocational shop and started working with my hands — carpentry, plumbing, sheet metal. It was awesome.
It was around this time that I was mentoring a young guy from El Salvador. I remember him telling me, “You know, Chris? You help all these people get out of prison and you have diplomas and you’re mentoring all these people. You are such a good dude. Why are you stuck in here?”
I was like, “I don’t know.” He says, “I don’t want to get too religious with you, but I never hear you talk about God. Maybe that’s what’s missing in your life,” and he walked away.
That was something that really hit me because I believed that God existed, I just didn’t understand God. I went back to my cell and pulled out my Master Plan, and I started reading my plan and talking to God. I kept saying, “I just need a sign. I need a sign that you’re up there, that all that stuff isn’t for nothing.” I did it for two weeks.
Then my lawyer came to see me and said, “Chris, you got a court date.” I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Well, what happened? Why was the change of heart?” He says, “I have no idea. But they want to see you.” This was the biggest job interview of my life. Two months later, I’m standing in the courtroom.
“I didn’t know what social entrepreneurship meant at the time, but I was like, ‘I’m going to go back to my community and I’m going to start companies and help people. I’m going to write a book one day.’”
I had tricked myself into believing that I was going to get out. I called it a positive delusion. It was the only way that I could get up early in the morning to exercise, go to school and vocational shops. I treated it like a military regimen. It was the only way I could justify it for it to make sense. Because who would do that if they knew it was all for nothing? I had been in prison for 10 years at this point and had been denied my reconsideration five times. But I kept believing.
So two months after meeting my lawyer, I was standing in this empty courtroom with no friends or family and just shaking. The state’s attorney was just tearing into me, saying, “Life means life. He should die in prison, and that’s what it is.”
When it was my turn to go, I pointed to the judge’s desk and the stack of papers on it, which were all of the letters that I wrote to the prison system about what I had accomplished and what I would accomplish if I got out, and I said, “That’s 10 years of consistency.” I started talking to the judge about being a mama’s boy and watching my mom being attacked in front of me. I talked about losing five of my friends before the age of 17, two of whom died in my arms. Going to school the next day and no counselors, no one asking me how I feel. They just said, “Get over it. You’re black. You live in a tough neighborhood, and that’s just how it is.” But I couldn’t get over it.
I talked about how remorseful I was for the crime that I had committed, that I didn’t want to do it but I had to accept the fact that I did it. I talked about how, despite being in a prison, in college I tested at the top of my class and got my college degree — the first one out of my family, out of all of my siblings, to get one, and I was in prison. Then I talked about what I would do if she gave me a second chance. I didn’t know what social entrepreneurship meant at the time, but I was like, “I’m going to go back to my community and I’m going to start companies and help people. I’m going to write a book one day.”
She got quiet and she just stared at me for a little bit. My heart was beating and I was sweating and I was like, “This is my one shot of ever getting out of prison again.” She leaned in and she says, “You committed a terrible crime. But I believe that you are rehabilitated and I want to give you a second chance to live your life. But here’s the deal. You can’t get out and be regular. You can’t just get a job and start a family and fly under the radar. You wrote to me and talked about all these ambitious things that you wanted to do in your life. I want you to do everything on the list. Finish it. It’s the law.” I ended up spending 16 and a half years in prison before the judge freed me.
— Chris Wilson