Former Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson welcomed 82 people he helped get out of jail to a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday.
Wilson stood on the pulpit at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side and handed each of them an envelope with $200 cash inside.
It’s part of an effort Wilson launched in September, to get people charged with misdemeanors out of jail while they await trial, and help them get on their feet once they’re out.
Wilson said he is motivated by experiences in his own family.
“When I was running for mayor, I talked about prison reform and I talked like everyone else — just talk. But I had two sons who went to the Cook County jail and when they came out, their attitude was very hard, and one of them got killed [at the] age of 20,” Wilson said. “So if I can get out a few of them, then look, it’s worth it.”
The Cook County Sheriff’s office said the businessman has spent more than $50,000 in the past few months on bail for people charged with what the office calls low-level offenses, which can include drug possession, retail theft and domestic battery.
According to the office, Wilson’s effort has gotten 108 people out of jail.
One of those people was Devon Young, who had his bond posted by Wilson on Nov. 8 and eagerly arrived at the church Thursday.
Young said he spent two weeks in jail on a domestic battery charge. He said the charges were dismissed at his first court hearing after being released.
“I’m feeling blessed,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of people that can’t bond out and they’re in jail for the pettiest crimes,” Young said. “And they know nine times out 10 we’re going to beat the charges anyway.”
Young said he sent Wilson a thank-you card, and plans to spend the money on household necessities.
“We need a lot of things. We need tissues, soap, everything,” he said.
After the money was handed out, and a group photo was taken, everyone headed to the church basement for a Thanksgiving meal.
Alexander Forker of Wheaton sat at a plastic table eating his meal with a friend.
Forker said he got arrested for drug possession, just about a mile south of the church. He spent six weeks in jail before Wilson posted his bond. During his lock-up, he lost his home. He said that experience, as well as Wilson’s generosity, have inspired him to quit drugs for good.
“I was already homeless prior to this, a year before, and built it all up, and then I just let it all go to waste,” Forker said. “So if I build it up again, I’m not going to let it go this time.”
Wilson was joined on the pulpit Thursday by state Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), who both represent Chicago’s West Side. Both have pushed to rid the county and the state of Illinois of cash bail.
“Some people deserve to be locked up,” Ford told the crowd from the podium. “But not everyone who’s locked up in Cook County jail, in prison, deserves to be there.”
Wilson said he hopes his high-profile spending of his own money will help spur other lawmakers to action.
Wilson began his business career as a janitor at McDonald’s, but worked his way up. Today, he owns several franchise locations across the city. He said the first franchise he owned was just a few blocks from New Mount Pilgrim Church.
“The people who came to my McDonald’s, they were on welfare and things like that,” Wilson said. “But they came and spent their money at my McDonald’s restaurant to allow me to be able to live where I live, and go around the country and enjoy myself with my family. So I owe that back to those people and I owe it back to my community.”
Wilson said he plans to bail out more than a thousand people out of Cook County jail in 2017.
Patrick Smith is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow him @pksmid.