Montelle Mohead, 28, was one of six people bailed out of jail Thursday by former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson as part of his Good Samaritan Bond Pilot Project.
Taking photos with clergy, politicians and Wilson near the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Mohead grinned and exclaimed: "I feel like a celebrity!"
Mohead, who was being held on a charge of financial identity theft, said he didn't believe it was real when he was told Wednesday afternoon that he would be getting out of jail. Wilson bonded him out for $500.
The project, funded by Wilson, will help inmates charged with misdemeanors who can't afford to post bail.
"When I was running for president, I was talking about prison reform so I decided, look, stop talking, go in your pocket and help," said Wilson, adding that he hoped to set an example.
Wilson announced in June 2015 that he would run for president as a Democrat but failed to secure the nomination. He emphasized that his project was not about politics but "about human lives."
Marcellus Blackwell Sr. broke into a smile Thursday when he talked about seeing his children for the first time since he'd been incarcerated two weeks ago for a misdemeanor charge of street gang contact by a parolee. He was also bonded out for $500.
"You really don't get opportunities like this, especially in Chicago with all the crime and the misjudgments of character, so when they gave me a chance, I really didn't know what to do," Blackwell said. "I couldn't sleep all night, I was just so happy."
Wilson originally planned to commit $15,000 but promised Thursday to put $50,000 toward bailing out inmates through 2017. Wilson said he was provided a list of potential beneficiaries by the Cook County sheriff's office and plans to have diverse recipients because the project was not "a black thing" but "a human thing." He hopes to bail out up to 5,000 people by 2017.
The Cook County Jail has 344 detainees who need $1,000 or less to be released. Of that, 188 people, or 55 percent, are charged with misdemeanors, according to Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff's office.
"We were delighted to work with Dr. Wilson, and the individuals that have been released will receive services and support through the sheriff's supportive release program where we will do our best to ensure their success in the community and their compliance with future court dates," Smith said.
Sharlyn Grace, criminal justice policy fellow at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and co-founder of Chicago Community Bond Fund, praised Wilson for bailing out the inmates. However, she said she believes that wider scale policy changes also need to be implemented. The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice is a social impact research and advocacy organization focused on court reform, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund is a nonprofit organization that posts bonds for those who cannot.
"The private charity model is no substitute for the systemic reform that we need," Grace said. "(Pretrial detainees) are not posing a threat and they're there simply because they cannot pay that money. That situation needs to be remedied and that is going to require policy change."
Clergy and politicians attended the news conference, lauding Wilson's project as an "antiviolence initiative" and encouraging people to join in.
Wilson said he hopes the beneficiaries of the project will take advantage of this "second chance" and commit to programs that will have a positive affect on their lives, such as going to local churches for support and guidance.
But some of the inmates have had previous brushes with the law, committing misdemeanors and felonies.
Blackwell was charged with felonies in the past, including burglary and aggravated battery of a peace officer.
Vincent Smart, another beneficiary who was bonded out for $500 after being charged with retail theft, also has had past felonies, including burglary and retail theft.
Wilson said the future was "out of (his) hands" and he entrusts them to God.
The other inmates included:
•Kevin Nesbit, who was bonded out for $500 after being charged with criminal trespass to vehicles.
•John Quesada, who was bonded out for $350 after being charged with retail theft.
•Russell Miller, who was bonded out for $500 after being charged with criminal trespass to vehicles.
The total amount of their bonds was $2,850. Wilson also gave $200 to each person for food and necessities, bringing his contribution to $4,050 Thursday.