When Jesse Wiese was 21 years old, he robbed a bank at gunpoint. After his arrest, officers took him to jail for booking. He remembers how they forced him to remove his clothes during the process.
"My first experience was really just learning how best to give away your human dignity," Jesse says.
Several years of depression, suicidal thoughts, and a nihilistic worldview had led him to this moment. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Jesse spent the first year learning how to survive in a place that felt dangerous and dark.
But when he started attending the Prison Fellowship Academy®—a yearlong program designed to replace criminal thinking with renewed purpose—Jesse's perspective radically shifted.
AMBITION FUELED BY DIGNITY
"All the dignity that I'd given away or had been taken from me was slowly starting to be given back to me in the Academy," Jesse recalls. "Throughout the next couple of years, it really just transformed my entire way of thinking. I ended up spending the remainder of my sentence as a completely different person, trying to give back instead of just being a taker."
Energized by this dignity, Jesse soaked up all he was learning at the Academy. He also earned a college degree from Moody Bible Institute through correspondence. After that, he began studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
"I really started to grow towards an affinity for the law," Jesse says. "I appreciated the law, what it stood for."
When Jesse envisioned life after prison, he imagined being a lawyer or even a judge. He didn't think it would be easy. But he didn't question the possibility of being allowed to pursue his ambitions—after all, he thought he was doing everything he was supposed to do.
'My first experience [with the criminal justice system] was really just learning how best to give away your human dignity.'
A RUDE AWAKENING
"I took every program," Jesse says. "I wanted to get everything I could out of my prison experience to better me."
Jesse assumed that applying himself to rehabilitation would open doors for him in the future.
"While you're in prison, you're doing all of these things that people tell you to do in the belief that it’s some kind of a social contract—that I do this, therefore I will then be able to do these other things," Jesse explains. "And unfortunately, that's not the case."
After Jesse's release from prison in November 2006, he took a job slinging horse manure. He was deeply grateful for the work, aware that finding employment after release can be a challenge. He also interned at Prison Fellowship®, helping other recently released men find their feet.
Jesse was accepted to Regent University School of Law in Virginia. Because he lived in Iowa, he would need an out-of-state transfer. He called his parole officer to share the news of his acceptance and request the transfer.
"You'll never go to law school," she replied and denied his request.
Jesse was stunned and asked why. At this point, Jesse says, she began screaming at him. She told him that her sister had tried to get into law school and was not accepted. To Jesse, her angry comparison revealed a mindset that would only become more vivid as the years went by: "You're them, and we're us. You don't get to do things like this."
'I wanted to get everything I could out of my prison experience to better me.'
THE SECOND PRISON
He had served his sentence, but the consequences weren't over. 'You walk out of prison, and you walk into a second prison.'
Thankfully, the very next week, the parole officer retired. Jesse's new parole officer was glad to issue the transfer. Jesse packed all his possessions into his car and drove to Virginia, excited to begin his new life.
At Regent, Jesse quickly gained a reputation as a hard worker who was worthy of trust. He divulged his background to very few people besides Melissa, a fellow student he was dating and eventually married. He wanted his classmates and professors to get to know him as an individual.
Jesse excelled in his classes. He was elected president of the law school's honor council. But that didn't matter when he sought an internship at the attorney general's office. Jesse disclosed his background and was excited to be granted the internship. But two weeks before he was supposed to start, the offer was rescinded due to his record.
Jesse was frustrated. The reneging on the internship felt like his first parole officer all over again. He knew he was a different person from the young man who robbed a bank a decade before. And he knew he could do the work. But once again, someone with power decided that his history disqualified him.
It was only the beginning of Jesse's encounters with barriers after prison. He had served his sentence, but the consequences weren't over.
"[For the] 70 million Americans that have a criminal record in the United States, [such barriers are] the second prison," Jesse says. "You walk out of prison, and you walk into a second prison."
Jesse graduated in May 2011 and sat for the bar two months later. He passed.
In Virginia, attorneys are licensed through the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners. Because of his record, Jesse knew he must first attend a hearing before the Character and Fitness Committee. The committee would then make a recommendation to the board.
After interacting with Jesse, the Character and Fitness Committee recommended his licensure. Jesse and Melissa were thrilled, assuming his licensure was now just a matter of paperwork. But to their astonishment, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners unanimously overturned the recommendation, citing Jesse's character as untested. They determined that prison and going to law school was like living in a "bubble."
Instead of appealing the decision, Jesse decided to wait and try again. He took a job at Prison Fellowship on the advocacy team, working on reforms in the criminal justice system. After two years, he reapplied, bringing in more character witnesses. Again, the committee recommended licensing Jesse. Once again, the board overturned it. This time, Jesse did appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. He lost in a 4-3 decision.
"I had the perception that when I walked out of prison, I could do anything and be anything if I worked hard enough, hustled hard enough," Jesse said. He now realized that was not guaranteed. The social contract he thought he had signed was a lie.
'When I walked out of prison, [I thought] I could do anything and be anything if I worked hard enough, hustled hard enough.'
Jesse tried to put the idea of practicing law out of his mind. But he couldn't lay down his dream. In Virginia, bar passage is only good for five years, so getting licensed would mean Jesse would have to retake the bar exam. The bar is a daunting prospect for anyone, but especially with a full-time job and a new baby. With the unwavering support of Melissa—who, without Jesse's knowledge, set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the bar costs—Jesse studied for and passed the Virginia bar a second time.
The process was painfully familiar. Jesse applied, brought new witnesses to the Character and Fitness Committee, was recommended for licensure, and was denied by the board. Again, he appealed his case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
But this time, he prevailed. The court voted 4-3 in his favor. Almost 10 years after graduating from law school, Jesse could finally be licensed.
"I can't describe the feeling," Jesse says. "It just felt like relief. I had spent so much time and energy fighting."
Seven years after graduating from law school, Jesse could finally be licensed.
Jesse compares in-prison rehabilitation to building a car. People behind bars are told how to better themselves and improve their chance of success on the outside.
"This whole time in prison, people are giving you all of these pieces, and you're like, 'Okay, I’m going to build a car,'" Jesse says. "Here's the steering wheels, there's the tires, there's the engine. But then, when the prison gates open, there's no road."
When Jesse encountered this harsh reality, he carved a road through sheer determination. But for many formerly incarcerated people, that's just not possible. Barriers can include job-related consequences like the ones Jesse faced. And a criminal record can also limit housing, loans, and participation in civic life. In fact, the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences Conviction documents more than 44,000 legal collateral consequences for formerly incarcerated people—those who have already paid their debt to society and are ready for a second chance.
"I try not to get bitter, but at the same time, I'd love to see the system get changed," Jesse says.
Today, as the national director of program design and evaluation at Prison Fellowship, Jesse is focused on helping those who are walking a similar road.
"People don't have to go through these types of things. Ultimately, we are just stealing from ourselves as a community and as a culture by not allowing people to thrive and flourish with their God-given potential."
Today, as the National Director of Program Design and Evaluation at Prison Fellowship, Jesse is focused on helping those who are walking a similar road.