Wrongfully Convicted. 21 Years In Prison. Pardoned By Obama. Mr. Wash Reflects On A Remarkable Life

Mr. Wash was sentenced to life for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he’s an artist with his own documentary

NICOLE KARLIS

Imagine spend­ing one-third of your life in prison for some­thing you didn’t do. Would you bit­ter, angry or resent­ful? For many peo­ple of col­or in America, this is not a mere thought exper­i­ment, but a real pos­si­bil­i­ty. According to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, inno­cent black peo­ple are 12 times more like­ly to be false­ly con­vict­ed of a drug crime than inno­cent white peo­ple.

Fulton Leroy Washington of Compton, California, who goes by Mr. Wash, is one of those who were wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed of such a crime. In 1997, Washington was sen­tenced to life in prison for con­spir­a­cy to man­u­fac­ture the drug PCP. His youngest daugh­ter was two years old at the time. For over 21 years, Mr. Wash served time in pris­ons in Kansas, Colorado, and California. In that time­frame, he taught him­self how to paint after his attor­ney asked him to draw the wit­ness who could help cor­rob­o­rate his sto­ry. Then, in May, 2016, Mr. Wash was one of 58 pris­on­ers who had their sen­tences com­mut­ed by for­mer President Barack Obama.

Mr. Wash took to con­tin­u­ing to paint after being released from prison, and to date, he has paint­ed near­ly one thou­sand paint­ings, includ­ing por­traits of pub­lic fig­ures and pris­on­ers. Perhaps his most well-known paint­ing is his take on Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation with Abraham Lincoln. In Mr. Wash’s paint­ing, President Obama replaces Lincoln; the eman­ci­pat­ed is Mr. Wash.

Now, Mr. Wash’s life sto­ry is being told in a short doc­u­men­tary titled “Mr. Wash,” pro­duced by WeTransfer and which can be seen on YouTube. Mr. Wash lives in Compton today, paint­ing and spend­ing time with his fam­i­ly, and head­ed to Africa to ful­fill a prayer request and visions of his dreams (more on that here.).
When I sat down to inter­view Mr. Wash in Telluride at the ideas fes­ti­val Original Thinkers, he start­ed by inter­view­ing me. “Who are you?” he asked, fol­low­ing up with more ques­tions about my life. “This what hap­pens when you’re in court. When you’re fight­ing your case and fight­ing for your life, you learn to get the prop­er infor­ma­tion,” he explained. This bit of wis­dom recalls the words print­ed on a shirt sold on his online store: “Reading can seri­ous­ly dam­age your igno­rance.”

Here is the rest of our con­ver­sa­tion, edit­ed for length and clar­i­ty.

So can you share more about what brought you to this fes­ti­val? 

When peo­ple hear that a per­son was wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed, and he’s out of prison, I believe that in their minds, they have a pre-exist­ing idea of what type of per­son that would be. And when they meet me, their whole real­i­ty change[s]. This is what I’m hear­ing from peo­ple — is that, “I would have nev­er known that you’d been in prison for many years.” They say: “You are not angry, you are not insti­tu­tion­al­ized, you have a dif­fer­ent type of spir­it about you.”

What was that like in 1997 to be wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed? 

It was unbe­liev­able. It was sur­re­al because I was a per­son who was raised up to believe in the sys­tem. And I still do. But, I always —I watched the con­vic­tion, and I thought that it was part of a ploy, that the gov­ern­ment used to weed out the truth. And because I’d nev­er been to these places that they went to, and I nev­er com­mit­ted a crime, I always felt that I was going to go home, once they got every­thing set­tled. But, instead, I learned that they actu­al­ly fab­ri­cat­ed the evi­dence against me to cov­er their own inves­tiga­tive fail­ures.

Who is “they”?

It would be the team task­force. A team of fed­er­al, state, and local offi­cers and agents com­prised of DEA, LAPD, LASD, and BNE.

So, 21 years in jail. Your life changed in many ways. Can share more about what your day-to-day was like, and how that changed in prison?

I think the first year in tran­si­tion was about let­ting go. I had a com­pa­ny, I had employ­ees, I had fam­i­ly, and so the first cou­ple of years was let­ting go of the com­pa­ny, let­ting go of the respon­si­bil­i­ty of my employ­ees and their fam­i­lies. Then, while you [do] that, you’re los­ing your equip­ment, you’re get­ting sued for the con­tracts that you weren’t able to fin­ish, and the com­pa­nies have to have oth­er peo­ple to do it, and now they’re billing you. I had to go through all of that type of stuff, and that was like the first year or two.

And then, fol­low­ing that, the tran­si­tion was about learn­ing more about the law, a lot of read­ing. We have a T‑shirt on Wash Wear that says, “Reading will seri­ous­ly dam­age your igno­rance.” I real­ized how igno­rant I was about the law. And how it had me cap­ti­vat­ed when I was read­ing and find­ing truths. So then, I guess I was com­ing to an aware­ness, that, “wow, the sys­tem is not what I thought it was.”

Then, from there, it became sur­vival, at the same time. All while this is going on, there’s a sur­vival mode because you’re in a new envi­ron­ment, and time is of the essence. You have to try to prove your inno­cence by such and such a time. And if you don’t, you lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty but, you have to sur­vive, while try­ing to do that, and how you bal­ance the two. It became kind of dif­fi­cult.

Of course. And is that how you turned to paint­ing?

The art came pri­or. It came dur­ing the time in court. We were hav­ing a post-con­vic­tion hear­ing, my attor­ney asked me to draw peo­ple that I worked with, when the gov­ern­ment said that I was pur­chas­ing chem­i­cals to be used in the man­u­fac­ture of ille­gal drugs. And that sketch draw­ing became a piece of evi­dence because they found the peo­ple from that draw­ing. And that became a piece of evi­dence, and that day I cried in court. I could­n’t con­trol it. And I promised God, I would con­tin­ue to prac­tice that type of art, and to share it, freely.

So then how did your art style change when you were in jail? It seems you advanced from sketch­ing to por­trai­ture, maybe.

During that time of incar­cer­a­tion, I quick­ly learned that you can­not become emo­tion­al in prison. If you become emo­tion­al, and show emo­tion, sev­er­al things could hap­pen. One, the guys would think that you was wussy or what­ev­er, and then you become a vic­tim, and you [are] sub­ject to every­thing that you could imag­ine under the sun; beat­ings, rapes, and every­thing else. Two, if you’re espe­cial­ly emo­tion­al around the police, the staff or the insti­tu­tion, then their psy­chi­a­trist would inter­pret it as being that you’re men­tal­ly unsta­ble. So you have anger issues, or you have [some­thing else] — the psy­chi­a­trist will find some kind of box to put you in.

So you have to build your life, your per­son­al­i­ty around — how you nav­i­gate between that, how do you stay strong in front of all the pris­on­ers that you’re with. But also, stay sane in front of the offi­cers.

So the art­work became that vent, that, okay, I’m not going to say what I feel, my feel­ings are mine but, I’m going to paint them. And then I’ll give the paint­ing to the world, and let you inter­pret it, you say what it makes you feel It became a way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and it became a sto­ry­telling process.

So I think when you look at the work col­lec­tive­ly, that’s what you see. If I could ever get all the paint­ings back, and put them in a line, from the very first one, to the last one, it would be a sto­ry that peo­ple look at and say, you go in and out of my mind like this, like a worm­hole.

I have a hard time remem­ber­ing what I paint. I don’t know what I paint. If I don’t have a pho­to­graph of it, I don’t know, I paint so many because that’s [how I] stay bal­anced. You have emo­tion­al things that come in, and okay, you put it on a piece of paper, fold it up, put it in an enve­lope. That emo­tion is safe.

Yeah, and I guess that’s kind of how art is. You put some­thing out in the world, and it’s real­ly up to the peo­ple who are tak­ing it in to decide what it means.

Yeah. Speaking of which, I did a cou­ple of pieces, and the insti­tu­tion accused me of try­ing to escape from prison, and seized all my work and pun­ished me. So then, I became afraid to be expres­sive, even of art.

How long did that go on for?

That was for nine­ty days but it was so severe because I was not allowed to paint any­thing. For a peri­od I was kicked out of the art room. I could only look through the win­dows. That was, trau­ma­tiz­ing.

Were there any points where you felt like giv­ing up?

No, nev­er to the point of giv­ing up. You can’t give up on life. Life only goes in one direc­tion. Definitely, there’s points where you tire down, your body needs to rest, your mind needs to rest, you need to think about some­thing dif­fer­ent. And you have those lit­tle moments that come in between, from one fol­low­ing to anoth­er. You work three or four months on one doc­u­ment, and you want to dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s, so you write it, rewrite it, read more or research new laws come out, and incor­po­rate it into the doc­u­ment. The new law points to the facts and rea­sons why you shouldn’t be here. And then, once you file it in court, then you know you got to wait. And some­times the wait can be any­where from months to years. You nev­er know. So how do you keep san­i­ty in between that time, for me, that’s when I paint.

And I switch around from five days a week, two days paint­ing, to five days paint­ing, two days, read­ing over case logs. So you get about a month or so of that. One time it went for like … I was in the Supreme court for almost two years, wait­ing on them. So you just wait­ing, in lim­bo. And then what hap­pens, is that, every time you file these types of peti­tions, and all your fam­i­ly get with you, and every­body excit­ed and they with you, and then when you get denied, they’re hurt so bad, that pret­ty soon, they nev­er get excit­ed no more, to help you.

Yeah. So what does your art look like now? Has your art changed since now, you’ve been out of prison?

It has­n’t real­ly changed much. I con­sid­er myself [s]till in prison. I’m still on parole. I don’t fool myself into think­ing that I’m not incar­cer­at­ed because I’m sit­ting here in a restau­rant with you. I still have to report [to my parole offi­cer]. So I nev­er mis­take myself to let myself be part of that delu­sion, that I’m free. I’m not free.

So that’s what hap­pens when peo­ple have that false sense of free­dom. They for­get. So when you asked about how did my art change now that I’m out — I’m not out, and the art has­n’t changed. I’m doing the exact same thing that I did then. I paint por­traits for peo­ple. If you want it paint­ed, I’ll tell your sto­ry. When it comes to telling my sto­ry, I’m still try­ing to fin­ish telling my sto­ry.

What do you hope that peo­ple learn from your sto­ry?

I hope that they learn [how] to become proac­tive [e]arly. The youth, when they com­ing out of high school, pay atten­tion to the law, and change the law. And I think that instead of always look­ing for news and stuff, to get high­lights, you got to read, and get in there to find out your own future.

What’s next for you?

What’s next for me is this, the end of my jour­ney. When I was in prison,. for some rea­son, the very first paint­ing that I paint­ed was the Amistad, the dead slaves in the ship. At that time, in paint­ing that, I did­n’t know I was born on a plan­ta­tion. Every oth­er pic­ture that I paint­ed of myself, was telling my sto­ry and my jour­ney, I was always in shack­les and chains. All the way until the last pic­ture, the Emancipation Proclamation.

So with that said, the next step in the jour­ney, is, I told a lot of the inmates, they said, “Mr. Washington, what are you going to do when you get out of prison?” They say, you got life now, I don’t have a life, I’m going to get out. What are you going to do when you get out? “I’m going to Africa,” I’d say. In my mind then, I was going to stay and nev­er come back.I guess a part of me will live in Africa for­ev­er in my art, because when I get there I will paint and cap­ture his­to­ry with my brush. I expect to become a visu­al voice for those that can’t find the words to speak.