When Chris Wilson was seventeen years old, he killed a man. Despite his youth, his history of trauma, and the existence of a number of extenuating circumstances, he was sentenced to life in prison for that crime. Around the time of Wilson’s sentencing, the then governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, declared that “a life sentence means life”, which effectively removed the possibility of eventual parole from all lifers then incarcerated in the state. It appeared that Wilson’s life was pretty much over before it had really had a chance to begin.

However, fate is a funny thing and, after a fair few false starts, Wilson came up with a plan to change his life, a plan that he hoped would ultimately help to secure his freedom. Once he had finally reconciled himself to his crime, to his sentence, to the fact that the outside world (including his family) wanted nothing to do with him, he realised that he needed to get to know himself and to decide what his endgame was. Of course, he wanted to get out of prison, but he also wanted to make something of himself, to prove to everyone (from his lawyer and his trial judge to his former friends, his family members and his fellow prisoners) that he was more than just a mindless killer.

He remained in his cell for three days straight while he thought things over, only emerging after he had come up with his master plan. The plan was basically a list, handwritten on lined paper, of things that he intended to achieve, things like “Grow a big-ass beard”, “Buy a Corvette” and “Join the mile-high club”. This initial plan wasn’t exactly packed with innovative means of self-improvement. However, it was a start. Wilson realised that he was focusing on the rewards he wanted rather than the ways he would go about achieving them, so he rewrote his plan, something that he would do several times over the years as he ticked things off the list, came to new realisations and decided on new goals.

Wilson’s master plan eventually grew to include more sensible stuff, such as “Get my high school diploma” and “Identify my faults that led me to prison”, some pretty sad stuff, like “Stop calling home every day” and “Forget about my fake-ass friends”, as well as some quite funny stuff, such as “No sex jokes” and “Party on a cigarette boat”. As he set about following his plan, Wilson also became more involved in prison life and the opportunities that it (paradoxically perhaps) offered. He gained his diploma and a number of woodworking qualifications. He learned several languages. He attended every type of therapy available. He started tutoring some of his fellow prisoners. He started a book group. He even launched a photography business so that the prisoners could have pictures taken with their families during visiting times.

All these achievements took years, because he was in prison for years, and The Master Plan certainly makes clear just how grim that time was. The book is principally Wilson’s memoir, but it’s also a shocking indictment of the US prison system, of the pettiness, of the hopelessness, and of the almost total disregard for the concept of rehabilitation. The first part of the book describes Wilson’s appalling childhood and young adulthood, making clear the path through life that eventually led him to shoot a man dead, but without glorifying the crime or making Wilson seem like a passive victim of circumstances. There’s no getting away from the fact that he killed someone. The Master Plan isn’t the story of someone who overcomes a wrongful conviction, it’s the story of someone who did the crime, then did the time, and then managed to turn his life around.

Chris Wilson’s story isn’t a happy one, and it certainly isn’t without trauma and adversity, but it is inspiring. He shows quite remarkable courage and determination as well as – eventually – a great deal of compassion for those he meets, both in prison and in the outside world. It would be quite difficult to get lower than the rock bottom Wilson experienced, which is why his tale of redemption and success against the odds is so moving and motivational. If someone who has been sentenced to life in prison can achieve so much, then what’s stopping everyone else from doing the same? Wilson wrote The Master Plan to inspire others to change their lives as well as to try and inspire a change in both the prison system and the social conditions that cause so many to believe that a life of crime is their only option. Here’s to hoping that he succeeds in those aims just as he has succeeded with the rest of his master plan.

Erin Britton 5*

The Master Plan by Chris Wilson
Scribe UK 9781912854257 pbk Mar 2019