When Jermaine Wilson was 12, he and his older brother broke into a house. While his brother planned how to steal the stereo, Jermaine scouted out the kitchen fridge for a snack. Jermaine was sneaking a bologna sandwich when his brother appeared in a rush to leave. Apparently, a neighbor had seen the brothers enter the house and called the police.
Helping carry the stolen equipment, Jermaine ran out, mouth still smeared with mayonnaise. Both brothers jumped on their bicycles and fled with the police not far behind.
PART ONE: HIDING BEHIND A MASK
It was his first arrest, but police activity didn’t faze Jermaine. He was no stranger to flashing blue lights in his Leavenworth, Kansas, neighborhood, where he often witnessed violence, drugs, and arrests. For a while, his dad struggled with addiction and cycled in and out of prison.
Jermaine’s mom worked two jobs to support the family and provide some stability, and for a season, the family attended church regularly. But as a teen, Jermaine was intrigued by the excitement he saw others chasing: the house parties, the money, the fancy cars, the drugs his older cousins dabbled in.
Since his family moved around a lot, he struggled to adjust. “I was always searching for acceptance,” said Jermaine. “I just wanted to be somewhere where I could have friends, but it was always challenging. I always had to act out and be the class clown to get that attention, that instant acceptance. I only got that attention when I did things [that were] negative. But it was still attention.”
AN ENTICING LIFE
From as early as Jermaine can remember, his incandescent smile wasn’t always the first thing people noticed about him. Everyone called him “Too Short”—his siblings, his friends, his mom, even other adults in the neighborhood. The name didn’t bother him until junior high. By then, he had started to gain weight. The hurt grew deeper when kids started to call him “too short, too fat, too ugly.”
Masking his insecurity, Jermaine embraced a tough-guy persona and began committing crimes to command respect. And when classmates heard about Jermaine’s crimes, they praised him for being tough.
“I allowed the praise to go to my head,” Jermaine said. “In the community I come from, people respect you because you go to prison, as if it’s some type of stripes or crown that you earn.”
At 15, Jermaine was charged with robbery and sentenced to four years in juvenile corrections. There, he found gang life enticing for all it seemed to offer—respect, security, belonging.
After his release from juvenile, Jermaine returned to his old neighborhood and former influences. By age 19, he had fallen headlong into drug addiction and dealing. He’d also become a father.
One day, Jermaine’s 8-month-old son was crawling on the floor, fussing for his dad to hold him. Jermaine was high, irritated by his son’s cries, and impatient to go sell drugs.
“Don’t leave,” begged his girlfriend, Jessica. “Pick up your son.”
Jermaine turned and walked out the door, and a few hours later, he was in handcuffs. He was later sentenced to three years in prison.
Jermaine found gang life enticing for all it seemed to offer—respect, security, belonging.
‘THE REAL JERMAINE’
As Jermaine sat in Lansing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Leavenworth County, it almost seemed unreal to be back in prison. He had just spent four years behind bars as a teen, and here he was again, surrounded by brick walls, surveilled by armed officers in watch towers.
With each passing day, Jermaine got sober, began to think clearly, and the reality of his situation hit hard: If I don’t change my life, one of two things is going to happen. I’m either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or end up dead in a grave.
When Jermaine heard about Prison Fellowship Academy®, he was curious to see what it offered. Then he enrolled in the yearlong program that guides participants into replacing criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based Values of Good Citizenship™: integrity, community, productivity, responsibility, affirmation, and restoration.
On his first day in the program, Jermaine received a hearty welcome. His fellow participants called him “brother,” told him he was loved, and offered to support him however he needed. Jermaine was taken aback, intrigued by their openness and warmth.
The Academy content was rigorous and overwhelming at times. Jermaine attended several hours of classes a week, guided by caring coaches he called his “bridge to hope.” Within the brotherhood of his Academy peers, he learned to be honest with himself and with others. He also opened up to his fiancée about things in his past. He realized there could be no lasting change in his life without letting others see the “real Jermaine.”
'If I don't change my life ... I'm either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or end up dead in a grave.'
A SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
A few months into the program, the separation from family weighed heavily on Jermaine. His phone calls went unanswered. Letters stopped coming. Though he had found community in the Academy, he felt broken and alone at the thought of losing everything he’d left behind at home. In tears, he cried out to God from his prison cell.
“God, I have nothing,” Jermaine prayed. “If You are real, Lord, please speak to me in my heart. Show me that You are real because I’m asking for a relationship. I’m tired of being a failure. I’m tired of being a mistake. I need something different.”
Jermaine asked Jesus to forgive him and be his Savior. A peace washed over him, and though he was still in prison, Jermaine felt free.
From then on, Jermaine engaged in his Academy classes with renewed hope and focus. Having experienced the grace of Christ, he felt motivated to love and forgive others like never before.
“I had accepted Christ in my cell before, but that experience of letting go of unforgiveness was my true spiritual awakening,” Jermaine said. “It’s why I’ve always got a smile on my face to this day.”
'I had accepted Christ in my cell before, but that experience of letting go of unforgiveness was my true spiritual awakening. It’s why I’ve always got a smile on my face to this day.'
PART TWO: THE JOURNEY TO HEALING AND RECONCILIATION
Jermaine continued writing to his family, though his hope faded with each unanswered letter. After months of silence, he received an unexpected call to the visitation room. When Jermaine arrived, he saw his son’s mother and his 3-year-old son waiting to greet him. It was a tearful reunion, but a joyful one: He learned that his son’s mother had recently accepted Christ, just like Jermaine.
“That’s when God showed me, ‘This is how you’re going to be able to keep your family,’” Jermaine said. “‘You’re going to have Me in the center. You couldn’t do it on your own. You messed it up. But I'm going to bring it back together.’”
MAKING THE MOST OF HIS TIME
Jermaine says that God used Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ to help heal his family. Prison Fellowship Angel Tree equips churches to strengthen relationships between incarcerated parents and their children and support prisoners’ families year round. While Jermaine was away, local church volunteers delivered a gift to his young son on Jermaine’s behalf.
“When people ask me, ‘How’d you learn how to be a good father?’ I say, ‘In prison,’” said Jermaine.
In 2009, Jermaine graduated from the Academy and transferred to a minimum-security facility. When he wasn’t working, he attended Bible studies and met with a counselor regularly. With 12 months left on his sentence, he yearned to make the most of his time, practicing his public speaking skills, mentoring other prisoners, and even holding gospel rap concerts on the prison yard.
Jermaine was released in 2010, and reunited with and married his longtime sweetheart, Jessica, in 2011. Some other people from his past life tried to creep back in, even offering him drugs.
But Jermaine had tasted true freedom. There was no turning back. And ever since, Jermaine says his life has been a whirlwind of grace, challenges, and second chances.
'When people ask me, ‘How’d you learn how to be a good father?’ I say, ‘In prison.’'
THE CHALLENGES OF FREEDOM
Soon after he walked free, Jermaine took a job at a dry cleaning and laundry service, making $8 an hour. He drove an hour each way to work. Then, he got a seasonal job cleaning homes for a living. In the off-season, he still needed to provide for his family, so he started his own lawncare business. Jermaine’s pastor saw his work ethic and offered him a position as a janitor at the church.
Next, Jermaine took a job at Fort Leavenworth as a dishwasher. In 30 days, he got promoted to an office job where he made $16.85 an hour and strengthened useful skills, like typing.
In 2015, Jermaine founded Unity in the Community, a nonprofit organization that aims to foster unity, combat racism, and build relationships between the community and law enforcement. That same year, he had the resources to hire a lawyer and have his criminal record expunged. As a result, he was able to enhance his security clearance at Fort Leavenworth.
Jermaine joined Connections to Success as a recruiter in 2018, helping to provide other returning citizens with gainful employment. A government job, he admitted, was an exceptional opportunity for someone who once had a felony record.
As he served others, Jermaine demonstrated his gifts for bringing people together and improving his community. That’s when people started asking if he’d ever thought about getting involved in politics. He wasn’t keen on the idea at first. But he longed to serve and soon realized his own capacity to impact the lives of others.
Jermaine never took these chances for granted. Every opportunity motivated him to give back.
Jermaine wasn’t keen on the idea of politics at first. But he longed to serve and soon realized his own capacity to impact the lives of others.
FOLLOWING GOD’S LEADING
While leading the nonprofit, Jermaine started volunteering in student ministry at his local church and became an ordained minister. He also served the local homeless population.
With no formal experience in politics, Jermaine ran for office in 2017 and became city commissioner of Leavenworth. In 2019, he was elected mayor of the city.
From working humble jobs to becoming the mayor, Jermaine had made it. He’d regained the respect of his community, reconciled with his family, and bought his first home. The same school district that once knew him as a troubled teen now considered him a pillar of the community. Then, he got the attention of Prison Fellowship® staff, who hired him in 2021 to support prison ministry programs in Kansas and the surrounding areas.
“I really get a chance to interact with the guys [in prison] to give them hope,” said Jermaine. “I let them know this program that they’re going through is a life-changing experience. You will get out exactly what you put in. And I am proof that this program works.”
'This program that they’re going through is a life-changing experience. You will get out exactly what you put in. And I am proof that this program works.'
STANDING TALL IN FAITH
Jermaine serves as regional director by day, and at home, he’s the husband and dad his family always hoped he would be.
“For me, excitement used to be going to the club. Now, it’s going to the kitchen table to color with my daughter,” says Jermaine.
He values quality time with his loved ones, attending church and praying together and coaching his kids in sports. He recently helped his oldest son, Jermaine Jr., start a business.
“I really want to see my kids be who God called them to be,” said Jermaine. “I tell them, I don’t want to impose my career, my dreams, on you. I really want you to blossom and to be who God called you to be. Go in the steps that He’s leading. The only way that’s going to happen is if you stay connected to Him and have that relationship.”
Jermaine knows what it looks like to embrace God’s purposes. Once a man who tried to gain respect by being tough, he now gains respect by standing tall in his faith. And his life has changed for good.
“God designed me to be very relational, to speak life, to encourage people,” says Jermaine. “He gives me words to let them know, ‘Hey, greater things are coming.’”
'God designed me to be very relational, to speak life, to encourage people,” says Jermaine. “He gives me words to let them know, ‘Hey, greater things are coming.’'