Wayland Wilson

Wayland Wilson was a first time nonviolent offender when he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 37 years for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana. He served 23 years before being granted clemency by President Obama on May 5, 2016.

My brother and I co-owned a car dealership in Dallas, Texas.

One Saturday morning I went to the car lot to open up and about 20 minutes later cops stormed in with guns drawn. I found out later that they had been investigating my brother. I knew he was selling cocaine and crack-cocaine but I was only involved in selling marijuana. But it was easy for them to tie me into things because they could prove phone calls were coming to and from my lot, they could say that I was involved. That’s all they needed.

Conspiracy laws allow prosecutors to charge lots of people and hold them all accountable regardless of how small their role might be. What they do is they round up all these folks, the small fish, and get them to turn on one another with promises of reduced sentences. I was a small fish but they threw lots of charges at me to try and make one stick. Just me having knowledge of illegal activity made me part of a conspiracy and because we dealt with cash at the dealership it was easy for them to accuse me of money laundering. It started out a cocaine conspiracy, then they changed it to crack-cocaine, then to marijuana, then they just lumped all of them together.

If I had plead guilty, I would have only done 11 years.

That was the plea deal they offered me, but they wanted me to say I had done things that I hadn’t. It was just crazy what the prosecutors were claiming. They wanted me to admit to laundering a million dollars. That never happened and I just couldn’t plead guilty to something I didn’t do, so I decided to go to trial. I had never even had a parking ticket so I thought I would be okay.

When I turned down their deal and decided to go to trial, they kind of saw it as a slap in the face. Now they wanted to get me the longest sentence possible. They really stacked the deck against me and painted it out to be this big drug ring where I was making millions of dollars.

At trial the jury was mostly white and convicted me on every charge. The judge explained to me that the law required him to give me such a severe punishment, that his hands were tied in sending a first time offender to prison for 37 years. My brother and my cousin were also convicted. I’d never even been to jail before and they sent me right to a high security prison.

Their goal is to break up your family.

The whole thing was devastating for everyone in my family. I left behind my wife and two children. Nobody could believe that I got this amount of time. I couldn’t believe it. How do you give a first time offender 37 years?

My son was 11-years-old and my daughter was 9. I missed out on raising them. I’d talk with them on the phone and keep a relationship but it was hard because like I said, when you go to trial, they punish you. After my conviction they sent me as far away from my family as they could. 

Everything had to be readjusted. I was the breadwinner of the house so things were in disarray when I left. They seized all of my assets so I no longer owned anything that I could sell for money to help my family with food, clothes, housing, school supplies. It was just devastating. My wife had to learn how to raise a family by herself and she did the best with what she had.

It’s hard getting used to being away from your family.

You only have 300 minutes a month to talk to them and you can only talk 15 minutes a time. You need to have money on your books to make phone calls or use the commissary and you can only go to the commissary on a certain date depending on what your number is. It takes a great deal of adjustment to cope with losing freedom this way.


I wasn’t around violence before prison.

The first prison they sent me to was the USP in Leavenworth, Kansas which was maximum security. The higher security level of a prison, the more dangerous it is. I was a first time offender, I wasn’t around violence before prison. But in there you never knew what would happen. There was always somebody getting stabbed and fights between gangs. They could call lockdown and it might last a few hours or a few weeks.

I worked as a mailroom orderly, delivering the mail to the medium security and the camp and I also worked in the garden. For the most part I worked as an orderly in the units cleaning. When I wasn’t working, most of my time was spent at the law library.

One of the first things I did when I went to Leavenworth was take every law course available. Studying law everyday was like my workout. I was determined to get out of prison and understanding law seemed like the best way to do that. I learned how to write motions and do my own filing, everything.

Over the years I went from knowing nothing to helping other inmates get their sentences reduced and a lot of them even went home. They were thankful for my help and that felt good.

Prison is full of constant challenges.

I had mostly good conduct. They get you for little things and some officers taunt you, do things to get on your nerves. You live everyday based on what kind of mood they might be in. They’ll look at you and say “Inmate, get over here and stand still.” And they’d just make you stand perfectly still for as long as they want and if you moved a tiny bit, they’ll write you up for an infraction.

You see movies and they’re mostly nothing like real prison. There’s so much stuff that goes on, so many rules. And I can tell you that they have everything in prison that they have on the streets — drugs, alcohol, everything… and you need to work hard to avoid that.

In 2014 I was contacted by a lawyer named Brittany Byrd. She grew up with my cousin Deanne and agreed to help with our case by putting together our clemency petitions as part of the Clemency Project 2014. I had been working for years on my own appeals and Brittany asked me to stop appealing and trust her. That was hard because after being let down by lawyers in the past I felt like I had to do everything myself — but I’m so glad I listened to her.

I always believed that I’d get clemency. I’d tell guys “Man, I’m getting out. I’m getting clemency.” And they just say, “That guy is crazy. He’s been locked up too long. He’s institutionalized.” But for me all I could think about was going home.


President Obama granted me clemency on May 5, 2016.

One day they called me from work to go to the counselor’s office and when I got there my counselor was waiting along with the Assistant Warden. They told me they had received a phone call and that I needed to sit down and wait for my lawyer to call back. They didn’t know what it was about but I knew it must be clemency. Finally the phone rang and they gave it to me and it was Brittany on the line. She said “Wayland, congratulations you’ve been granted clemency.”

Chills came over me. I was overjoyed and thankful. Very, very, thankful. God was really in the plan and I just felt so blessed. My other co-defendant, Donel Clark, he got clemency too and my brother Michael got out on the two-point reduction.

My family picked me up from the prison and we were able to stop and eat dinner together for the first time in 23 years. They dropped me off at a halfway house and once I finished my time there, the first thing I did at home was eat my mom’s pot roast and lemon cake. I missed that for so many years. They’d let us have some of it on the holidays but now I had all of it sitting on one table, my family’s table. It was an incredible feeling.

Now I’m an independent contractor trailer truck driver hauling all sort of loads like freight, RV, cars, whatever. They call it “hot-shotting” and I’m in the process of expanding but right now. I mostly haul the RV trailers. It’s been good to me and I really enjoy it. It can be long hours but for the most part you get used to it and it doesn’t seem like work because you’re relaxing and taking the trailer from point A to point B without any damage.

It really touches you to have the commander-in-chief reach down and correct what was wrong.

You have the President of the United States giving people a second chance when some people still don’t want to see that it was a mistake to lock people up and throw away the key for a nonviolent crime. It really touches you to have the commander-in-chief reach down and correct what was wrong.

I want President Obama to know that I will always and forever be grateful for his service to our country and to us first time offenders. I believe that God was looking over both of us and that he laid us on President Obama’s heart. I just want to tell him thank you and that I appreciate him and Eric Holder and the clemency project for writing these wrongs. People just didn’t deserve to serve this kind of time and we all have so more to offer society and our families outside of prison.

There’s a lot of people left behind that should be out. A lot of really good people in prison. Some of the best, most trustworthy friends that you could have are right there. They deserve a second chance too.

Photos by Brenton Gieser 
Story edited by Jon Perri Twitter

Wayland Wilson
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