Taewon Wilson never imagined he’d be sitting in jail at age 20, facing what seemed like insurmountable circumstances and a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Wilson, now 46, had been a star football athlete only a few short years earlier.
Wilson, the child of a US naval officer and a South Korean business woman, had grown up living around the world before settling in Los Angeles as a teenager. “The only continent I’ve never set foot on is Antarctica,” he explained.
The family established roots in Cerritos he was in the 8th grade and he became a star football player – at one time ranked the 3rd quarterback in the country. After a devastating injury to his throwing arm at 17 years old, severe depression set in. Wilson turned to drugs and alcohol and by his own testimony, just started hanging out with the wrong people.
One drunken, hazy night, Wilson’s friend shot and killed someone and the shooter, along with Wilson and three other people were convicted. Unlike a lot of lifers, Wilson knew going into prison that he wouldn’t have a chance at freedom since he was sentenced without the possibility of parole. “From day one, outside of a miracle, prison life was all there was,” he described.
Nevertheless, Wilson started taking classes. Trying to better himself. Reconnecting with an old highschool girlfriend who would turn out be his angel, advocating for decades for the opportunity to commute his sentence to life so he could have at least a fighting chance at parole. Wilson is only three courses shy of five separate AA degrees, showing a commitment to education most people never exhibit.
Ironically, it was Governor Jerry Brown who first put the sentencing guidelines in place in the 1970s that led to his life sentence without parole and it was Governor Jerry Brown who signed the executive order to commute his sentence to life with the possibility of parole in 2018.
Wilson’s parole hearing was successful and he was released from prison in December 2019, after serving 26 years. Wilson’s parents and girlfriend (now wife) were able to see his release.
“Whether you serve six months or 20 years, you get out of prison with $200,” he explained. As a condition of his parole, Wilson lived in transitional housing for six months. The program connected him with a training classes and job placement through Goodwill Industries, and although he had a good plan in place for job re-entry, Covid hit. “I was only on the job for four days, and then I was furloughed,” he explained.
Wilson found out about NDICA’s Returning Citizens Stimulus Grant Program through his wife, who now works for Ella Baker Center in Oakland, CA. In partnership with the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership (LAARP), this pilot program provides single grants of $2,700 to individuals who have been released from prison or jail in the last 12 months to assist them in transitioning back to the community.
Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership (LAARP) and NDICA have provided nearly $2,000,000 in grant funding to date to support Returning Citizens who are most in need.
Wilson found out about the program within days of his furlough and describes it as “lifesaver.” The funds helped support Wilson’s bills, provide phone service, and just generally gave him a little breathing room until he was able to secure his new job with Five Keys, a non-profit providing traditionally underserved communities through education, employment, recovery, family and community.
Wilson’s role as “Ambassador” means he does a little of everything. He says he finds the work rewarding and hopes to get back into school and pursue his dream of being a lawyer. Wilson also volunteers in advocacy work, helping to support criminal justice reform activities to eliminate life sentencing without parole. His hope is that as a minimum, individuals can be re-classified as having a life sentence so they can at least go in front of a parole board after serving 25 years of their sentence.
“People who are released after serving decades simply don’t go back to jail,” he explained. “I’m proud to be a part of a movement to try to help create legislation that will help move people back toward a positive life as contributing citizens,” he added.