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What It's Like To Be A Non-Violent Drug Criminal, Released After 23 Years


We're joined now from Dallas by Michael Fitzgerald Wilson and his son, Mark. Michael Wilson was just released from the U.S. penitentiary in Victorville, Calif., where he served a life without parole sentence since 1994 for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. He was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, although no drugs were recovered at his home. Mr. Wilson's been out of prison for 11 days. Thank you for being with us.


SIMON: We'll explain your son, Mark, is with you there because you suffered a stroke four years ago, and your son might be there to help us speak with you. How does it feel to be out?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: It feels great (laughter). I'm just, yeah...

MARK WILSON: Sucking it in.

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: Yeah, just sucking it in.

SIMON: Mr. Wilson, can you help us understand what it was like to serve 21 years in prison for you?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: Twenty-three, man, I've never been in prison before. It was kind of really trying, but I guess I just take one day at a time and just thank God that everything was OK with that, you know.

SIMON: Mr. Wilson, how'd you find you were going to be released after all these years?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: My case manager called me and asked me. She said it must be a God, and then I say, yes, a God. It all happened so fast, right? I didn't even get my belongings, nothing. I just left, you know what I mean? But I go to the bus stop and it's like, oh, Lord, you know.

MARK WILSON: I mean, they knew his condition, and they took him to the bus stop, and they know he was there for 23 years.


MARK WILSON: So much has changed, you know. And thankfully, we had somebody out there who was able to go to him in California and help him out to get him to where he needed to be because...

SIMON: Yeah, you're in Dallas. He was in prison all those years in California.

MARK WILSON: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Mark, can I ask you a question, too?

MARK WILSON: Yes, sir.

SIMON: How old were you when your father went to prison?

MARK WILSON: I was 3 years old.

SIMON: And you're what, 26, now?

MARK WILSON: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Did know him well over the years he was in prison?

MARK WILSON: Yes, we always went to see him every summer, but he - that's one thing he did not do was lose his step with us, you know. He was still managed to do his part as a father even being in a situation like that. So we just blessed now, you know, that we do have him home, and I'm able to see his actions and see where I got a lot of my ways from and different thing, but I just didn't understand it, you know, growing up, a first-time offender, never been in trouble, you know. We are humans, and we all make mistakes, but to give life is just unheard of, you know.

SIMON: I gather the presiding judge complained - I think that's the word I have to use, too - that the mandatory sentence was too high.

MARK WILSON: Yes, sir.

SIMON: But he had no choice.

MARK WILSON: He had no choice.

SIMON: Mr. Wilson, are you angry?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: No, I guess I just - I thank God, you know, for everything, really, even the people that had testified against me and everything. It's - I thank God for them, too.

SIMON: Let me ask young Mr. Wilson, Mark Wilson. You know, your father was guilty of a crime, but he sounds very generous in spirit. Are you angry?

MARK WILSON: No, sir. In the beginning, I didn't understand, so I probably had it little angry, you know, because I know my father, you know. But as I grew older, you know, he was able to explain things to me, and God blessed me three days after my birthday to have him home, so...

SIMON: Mr. Wilson, what are you - what do you think of doing next?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: Yeah, I'm going to get into therapy for my speech and take some classes and everything. And hopefully, I can tell somebody else that way is not the way, you know.

SIMON: When you say that way, you mean dealing drugs.


SIMON: I have to ask, Mr. Wilson, did you ever really see an iPhone until you got out?


SIMON: Do you have an email account yet?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD WILSON: Not yet. Really, I've been just - I just been thankful I'm here, so I hadn't been wanting none of it yet, really.

SIMON: Michael Fitzgerald Wilson and his son, Mark Wilson, in Dallas, thanks so much for being with us.

MARK WILSON: Thank you, sir.


SIMON: Michael Wilson's lawyer told us that his release from prison was sudden because the government tallied up the time he'd served using the new guidelines and realized Mr. Wilson had already served too much time, so they let him out immediately. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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