Born and raised outside of Washington, DC, Chris Wilson is a formerly incarcerated author, artist, advocate, and entrepreneur. At the age of 17, Wilson was sentenced to life in prison, and, subsequently spent 117 days in solitary confinement. During his time in solitary, Wilson committed to bettering himself and began taking classes to get his GED. Following what he called his “Master Plan,” Wilson continued to pursue education, receiving an Associate’s Degree in Sociology.
Once back in general population, Wilson became a mentor to other incarcerated people and spearheaded initiatives to start a career center and book club at his facility. After presenting the work he’d done alongside a copy of his Master Plan, Wilson had his sentence commuted by a judge and was released after serving 16 years.
Upon his release, Wilson began using his art and entrepreneurship to help others survivors of solitary who are reentering society. His book, Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose, was published in 2019.
Recently, Wilson has teamed up with the boutique cannabis accessories company House of Puff to advocate for solitary reform through art. As a part of the collaboration, Wilson’s piece Positive Delusions will be featured on rolling paper packs to raise awareness for the issue (with a percentage of proceeds going to Solitary Watch). An exhibit of his art opens tonight at Etain Health, where attendees will be encouraged to take action to end solitary in New York City.
In the following reflection, Wilson shares his inspiration for creating Positive Delusions and his hopes for the piece’s impact. He was also interviewed about the work earlier this week on WNYC public radio. — Sara Rain Tree
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I went to prison when I was 17 years old. A child. During my time inside, I spent 117 straight days in solitary confinement. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.
There was no human contact. The guards were forbidden to talk to me, and I couldn’t hear or see any other prisoners. There were no windows in my cell, and I was only given one hour of exercise a day in a walled-off courtyard by myself. There was a slot in the metal door where guards would pass through meals. It was only unlocked when food arrived. I learned that if I left the food on the tray, they would leave the slot open. So I left my food there as long as possible, just to feel the air, smell whatever was outside of my cell, and try to catch a glimpse of anything in the hall. The only thing I ever saw were large, solid metal doors.
“How did you get through it?” My therapist once asked me about that time in my life.
“Positive delusions,” I told her.
I had to think about—had to will into existence—the life I would live on the outside of that cell. The good things that were waiting for me. The home-cooked meals. The experiences. The people. Those visions, those delusions, were the only way for me to stay sane.
That conversation I had with my therapist inspired the title of this work, Positive Delusions. Beyond reflecting on my own experience, my prep-work for creating this piece involved reading dozens of letters from people who spent or are spending time in solitary and also rereading the chapter of my book where I recalled my own experience of being locked away alone. That preparation triggered a cascade of debilitating emotions and nightmares. And it also forced me to reflect on the power of the human mind and spirit to find meaning, purpose, and even hope, despite battling darkness and despair.
Each color on the canvas captures the emotions I uncovered during that period of self-reflection. The blues, both light and dark, reveal my deep desire to see the ocean and sky again. Yellow represents the happiness I found in my memories of the past and the thoughts of the warm sunlight I believed I would one day feel again as a free man. I maintained that hope despite being sentenced to life in prison. The black and red depict the rage and rebellion I too frequently grappled with as a Black man in America—one who was made to feel like an animal locked away in a cage. I used pink in the work because I believe the color best represents my unwavering commitment to protecting others from the horror I endured by advocating to put an end to solitary confinement. White interacts violently with the other colors on the canvas as a representation of White supremacy and the ways in which it continues to wreak havoc upon and destroy the Black community.
This painting captures my full humanity. Going into it, I knew I wanted to create something beautiful despite the ugliness of solitary. I wanted to capture my hurt and pain but also the ways that I found the strength to persevere through that inhumanity.
As we work to end the practice of solitary confinement, I ask that we take a page from the books of those who have experienced it. Let’s think deeply about what our positive delusions may be, not just for ourselves, but for our country and our world. The changes we want to see may seem impossible, but they’re not. We just need to see the vision clearly.