Call him "Wilson the liberator."
Erstwhile mayoral candidate Willie Wilson — who also took a quixotic run at the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year — says he's going to Cook County Jail on Thursday with $15,000 in his pocket to bail out as many misdemeanor inmates as he can.
And Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is supporting Wilson's plan.
"I'm not doing this for political reasons," said Wilson, 68, who rose from poverty to own McDonald's franchises and a multimillion-dollar plastic glove distribution business. "These are people who are in jail because they can't come up with $100 or $200 in bail bond money. These aren't serious criminals — it's folks who got caught with a small bag of marijuana or who were hungry and stole some food from the store."
Wilson has been working with the sheriff's office for a couple of weeks. It provided him with an initial list of 50 broke inmates it deems likeliest to succeed on the outside while they await trial with the help of a support program, according to the sheriff's chief policy officer, Cara Smith, who said 10 to 12 inmates should be sprung with Wilson's help on Thursday and shares his hope that many more will also benefit in the coming months.
Smith called Wilson's offer to use his own money "a remarkable and unprecedented show of generosity by a private citizen." While the jail can handle its current population of 8,300, many of those locked up are not the type of people the jail was meant for, and Wilson's gift will help those kinds of people get out, Smith said.
Wilson said he was moved to help because when he was young and poor, "my mama sometimes had to go to the neighbors and ask for bread, and sometimes our neighbors had to come and ask us for bread."
"Instead of just talking about doing something, let's just do it," he said, adding that he hopes he can encourage others to make similar gestures.
Broke inmates will also be handed $200 cash to help them find food and get on their feet, added Wilson, who is expected to appear at a news conference to tout the program with Dart on Thursday.
Wilson, perhaps best remembered for referring to a group of journalists as "whiteys" during his failed mayoral bid, said he also wants to help inmates who had been languishing behind bars get their GEDs and jobs, and that he will be connecting them with church groups that can help them.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to run for office again," he said. "This just seemed a good way to help."