Willie Wilson, center, poses with some of the people he bailed out of the Cook County Jail during a Thanksgiving Day event held at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in East Gar eld Park. | Igor Studenkov/Contributor

Bryce Leslie made no bones about it – he was addicted to painkillers and he needed help.

He just didn’t think he should have been stuck in jail for months, before he even had a chance to go to trial, simply because he couldn’t afford to pay bail.

But thanks to Dr Willie Wilson, Leslie was only locked up for five days. As of Nov. 16, the self-made millionaire and former mayoral and presidential candidate bailed out 204 detainees who were in the Cook County Jail for minor, non-violent offenses. And on Nov. 24, he and Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of the New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd. in East Garfield Park, teamed up to give them all free Thanksgiving meals, with Wilson giving each person who showed up $200 in cash.

He promised to give them more money if they show up for their court dates, and he intends to keep bailing out non-violent detainees using his own funds and whatever funds he and his allies manage to raise until the State of Illinois reforms the bail system.

Under the current laws, when a person is arrested, they or their families must pay at least 10 percent of their bail to get out of jail. If they make their court date, everything but that 10 percent will be refunded. But, as Wilson and his supporters see it, this makes the system fundamentally unfair.

Although people who can afford to pay bail can’t get out, people who can’t are stuck in jail, even if their alleged offense is minor and they don’t pose any danger to society. 

During the Thanksgiving event, Wilson told reporters that he became interested in the issue while talking to people on the campaign trail. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform in Springfield, he decided to do something about it himself.

In addition to his concerns about how income affects detainees, he told reporters that he thought it was unfair that African Americans and other people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to get arrested for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.

“In one neighborhood, you get arrested for this stuff, [but] in another neighborhood, you don’t — that’s a double standard,” Wilson said.

He also said that people who were detained for non-violent offenses faced the risk of getting assaulted and if he could do anything to get them out of harm’s way, he would.

“Those who are arrested for misdemeanors shouldn’t be exposed to getting raped,” Wilson said.

Even if they don’t get assaulted, he said, the experience in jail was traumatic enough to affect a person, hurting them regardless of whether they’re convicted of their alleged crimes.

In September, he bailed out 64 detainees He originally planned to bail out 100 more on Nov. 16, but he found that he had enough money to bail out 120. Wilson told the reporters that he hopes to bail out between 1,000 and 2,000 people before the end of the year. Because all but the 10 percent of the bail money gets returned, he would be able to use most of the $50,000 he already spent a few more times.

Wilson also teamed up with Rev. Hatch and other religious leaders, who agreed to help the ex-detainees find housing, jobs and whatever else they may need. Wilson told reporters that, as someone who worked his way up to becoming a McDonald’s franchisee, he understood how much of a difference those opportunities could make.

As for the Thanksgiving meal, it was a simple matter of compassion.

“I wanted [the bailed out detainees] to come out and eat with us,” Wilson said. “I didn’t feel comfortable eating in my home and they don’t have anything to eat.”

Every person he bailed out was invited to come to Hatch’s New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Thanksgiving Day. Many ex-detainees brought their families. As volunteers set up for meals in the church basement, they all gathered in the pews. A number of local politicians and church leaders gave speeches praising Wilson and offering their support.

Hatch urged everyone who hadn’t already joined the effort to do their part. Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) said that he believed that Wilson’s actions will make a political difference.

“You toss a pebble into the ocean and [get] just a small wave,” he said. “[Wilson] threw so many pebbles that it led to a wave, a tsunami.”

Illinois State Representative La Shawn K. Ford (8th) offered words of encouragement for ex-detainees and called for action.

“If you feel like you’re not loved, you must know today that Dr. Willie Wilson loves you,” he said. “And now, it is up to all of us to work together. We are fed up with hope. We need the opportunity to live.”

Ford reflected that, while facing indictment for bank fraud, he could afford to make bail, but that it wasn’t fair that other people who may not even be guilty of the alleged crime didn’t have that opportunity.

Wilson urged the ex-detainees to stay out of trouble and make their court dates. If they do that, he and his allies said they would try to help then as much as they can, with whatever they need.

“I intend to help you as much as I can, and I always will,” he said. “Respect the law. I don’t [want] to be coming back and bailing you out again.”

Wilson said that he will also be looking into ways to increase job opportunities for youth in general, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to sell drugs to make easy money.

Leslie said that he was shocked when he heard that he was being bailed out, and that it took some time for the reality of it to sink in.

“I didn’t have the money to get out, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m just thankful they got someone who helps people like that.”

As Leslie sees it, he shouldn’t have been locked up in the first place.

“I wasn’t hurting nobody,” he said. “I need to be in some type of substance abuse counseling, not prison.”

Since getting out of prison, Leslie has been staying at the Franciscan House, a transitional housing facility located at 2715 W. Harrison St. in North Lawndale.

According to Cynthia Northington, the facility’s programming director, everyone who stays there gets help from a case management team to address whatever issues they may have.

Leslie said that he planned to use the $200 he received from Wilson to get a pair of glasses he needs, as well as a CTA pass to get around.

Stewart Ohage, of Bronzeville, came to the church with his grandmother. He was arrested for trespassing and he expected to stay in jail for at least a month. Because of Wilson, he only had to stay in jail for a week.

“It feels good,” he reflected. “[Wilson] opened up opportunities for a lot of people.”

Ohage said he was planning to use the $200 something nice for his grandmother and his girlfriend, and spend the rest on himself.

Chaevelle Johnson said Wilson bailed him out after 15 days.

“He opened up my eyes,” he said. “He really touched me. He said ‘God’s mercy endures forever,’ so I’m always going to keep that in mind.”

Ervin Donahue, of West Garfield Park, wasn’t one of the ex-detainees; he simply came to the church for a free meal. But he said that he had run-ins wth the law before and that he could appreciate how much of a difference Wilson’s actions made.

“Speaking from experience, there’s nothing like staying in jail and having someone bail you out,” Donahue reflected. “First you think it’s a joke, until you get downstairs and find out it’s real. It turns your life around. Ain’t no way you’re going to go back to what got you in jail. That’s what I mean when [I say] it changes your life. [The opportunity like this] only happens once, sometimes never.”