San Quentin’s Jonathan Wilkerson went from the juvenile system to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and now after more than three decades of incarceration he is paroling to a new life.
“You think through the years that you may not get out. That thought crushes you. Then it hits your soul that you are going to get out. I’m going to be free again—and then it happens,” Johnnie Wilkerson said as he sat on the bench inside San Quentin’s North Block.
When Wilkerson, also known as “Smiley,” entered Juvenile Hall, he was one very scared kid.
“Juvenile Hall was scary being a kid in prison. I didn’t know what to expect. The first place I hit was Chino, then Tracy, from Tracy I came to Old Folsom, then San Quentin,” Wilkerson said.
This was all before 1985. He stayed at each prison for a little over a year to a year and a half. However, over the years Wilkerson said he noticed he was changing.
“It took me a lot of years, and before I realized I needed to change I went through a lot. I was a kid, and I wanted to be the big shot,” said Wilkerson. “I was holding knives, selling dope, doing things to gain attention.”
Wilkerson, 52, knows now it was the wrong kind of attention. Yet as he matured over the years, he realized he wanted to get out of prison. He saw that his behavior was not going to get him out.
“So I kicked that 17-year-old kid inside of me out, because I began to believe if I truly wanted change, I had to change in my heart first,” said Wilkerson. “So that was the beginning of my own journey of growing up and maturing. I wanted to become a man.”
A self-proclaimed B average student with no school absences, Wilkerson said he liked learning. It was after school when all hell broke loose. His advice for today’s young generation: Get away from the bad crowd and get your education.
“When you’re on the right path all you have to do is keep walking, getting your high school diploma, GED and your bachelor’s degree. Education is the right path,” he said.
Convicted in 1980, Wilkerson was sentenced to 27 years to life for first-degree murder. During his incarceration, he said he went to the parole board 10 times and was denied 10 times.
“It should be state mandated… that San Quentin’s rehabilitation model on helping prisoners and find a way to implement San Quentin’s model statewide. Because it works”
Wilkerson described all of his parole board hearings prior to this last one as “vicious,” because when he first started attending hearings, the parole board had no intention of releasing murderers.
“This last time I went was the best board because they talked to me like I was a human being, as if they really wanted me to get out of prison. They really walked me through it.”
Wilkerson believes the taxpayers of California should know the parole board suitability process needs to be improved.
“Prisoners change, especially lifers. Constant punishment, denying lifers parole by way of a rigged board, is a waste of millions of state dollars and human potential.”
They should put people from the community on the board, he added. The board should consist of peers, like the students who come into San Quentin. They see inmates first hand, and see that they are not all just bad people.
In his 34 years of incarceration, Wilkerson said he witnessed several governors and wardens come and go in California. For him, he said, Gov. George Deukmejian was the worst because he was always taking parole dates from prisoners.
“As for wardens, I would say (First name?) Vasquez was by far the best. He walked around and talked to you. He made himself accessible. That should be paramount for every warden,” he said.
One element of prison that has not changed, Wilkerson said, is the massive number of young and old African American men who keep coming into prison.
“I think it’s because we’re profiled out there — always in the negative. It’s always the black man did it,” Wilkerson said. “Racism is still prevalent in the courts, the police agencies and in prison. It’s a general societal sickness. I hope it changes because as a people we could all accomplish a lot, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
Wilkerson said what makes San Quentin prison helpful is the education and self-help programs like V.O.E.G. (Victim Offenders Education Group), Overcomers and KID CAT plus others.
“What helps us the most are the volunteers. They have a positive attitude and don’t let the media outlets tell them what and how to think about prisoners.
“It should be state mandated by Gov. (Jerry) Brown,” continued Wilkerson, “that every warden in CDCR examine San Quentin’s rehabilitation model on helping prisoners and find a way to implement San Quentin’s model statewide – because it works.”
After 34 years in prison, Jonathan “Smiley” Wilkerson paroled from San Quentin Thursday, April 3, 2014.