Isaac Wright Jr. says: "In my experience in life, nothing good happens, most of the time, without a fight"

By Virginia Chamlee
December 01, 2020 09:43 AM
Advertisement
Isaac Wright Jr.
| Credit: SONY/ABC

An afternoon walk to the drugstore isn't the sort of activity that one would typically label "profound" — though Isaac Wright Jr. says that's exactly how he would describe what happened a few months ago.

"I was walking down First Avenue, heading to CVS. And two police cars pulled over and stopped, and rolled down the window and one of them asked, 'Are you Isaac Wright?' " he recalled this week. "When I said yes, they immediately got out and asked me to take pictures with them in front of the police car."

The experience was an altogether different sort of run-in with law enforcement than that for which Wright, whose life story is fictionalized in the ABC drama For Life, became known.

As For Life viewers are familiar, Wright served seven years in prison for a wrongful conviction, studying law behind bars before working as a proxy-lawyer for fellow inmates and eventually proving his own innocence in court.

Now, more than a decade later, he has his sights set on another goal that would have seemed unattainable at the time of his imprisonment: the New York City mayor's office.

Wright officially declared his candidacy for mayor on Tuesday, with a promise to "address the racial, economic, environmental, and educational injustices that plague our city’s institutions."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Wright explains what led him to launch the campaign: a combination of concerns about New York's future and a feeling that he was positioned to govern in the current political and social climate.

Wright, who is running as a Democrat, says he plans to run on a varied platform (about which he isn't yet willing to go into much detail), though he tells PEOPLE criminal justice reform, housing, infrastructure and the economy will all be major issues.

In Wright's words, his candidacy offers "an understanding of where the root of change occurs."

He certainly knows more than most when it comes to the ins and outs of the legal and carceral systems.

Isaac Wright Jr.
| Credit: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

In 1989, Wright was indicted in New Jersey with leading a drug trafficking network, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, maintaining or operating a narcotics production facility and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

By 1991, he had been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty by a jury on all charges. He was ordered to serve at least 30 years before becoming eligible for parole.

But Wright maintained his innocence, filing a lawsuit against the state and a number of law enforcement employees, including the prosecutor, Nicholas Bissell, who Wright alleged had engaged in misconduct.

In 1996, those allegations were proven when Bissell was convicted on 30 felony counts, including embezzlement. Days before he was to be sentenced, he went on the run, eventually killing himself in a Nevada hotel room.

Bissell's corruption proved integral to Wright's case and allowed for a springboard off of which the then-prisoner discovered his passion for law.

During an evidentiary hearing in 1996, Wright cross-examined a police officer involved with the case, ultimately getting the detective to confess to misconduct and illegal cover-ups.

As The New York Times reported, Wright and his lawyer were subsequently able to prove that his 1991 conviction had been based on perjured testimony and an illegal seizure of drugs.

Wright was freed on bail in December 1996, tasting freedom for the first time in seven years.

"I understood law enforcement in such a way that I was able to get a law enforcement officer, a veteran, to actually come clean and admit fault, even though he was facing prison time," Wright says now. "The years of dealing with those issues allowed me to take that experience and individually turn an officer around. I think I could do the same thing with the NYPD."

After his release, he went on to graduate from Miami's St. Thomas University School of Law in 2007.

He passed the bar in 2008 and currently works as a lawyer at the New York firm Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley. There, he focuses on "defending the wrongly accused and going after corrupt institutions," according to the firm's website.

"My experience is different than any other candidate in the fray," Wright says.

And while he hasn't had a traditional path to politics, Wright also doesn't consider himself an activist and is quick to say that his campaign isn't a means of publicizing any particular cause.

"I don’t consider myself a true activist, in the sense that I don’t like to do a lot of talking. I’ll ask once or twice, and then it's time to fight," Wright says. "That’s the core of my makeup: to fight for what's right."

Wright says that some friends and colleagues had urged him to run for office in years past, but the time didn't feel right until recently — in part because there's now so much to fight for.

Isaac Wright Jr.
| Credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images
For Life star Nicholas Pinnock (left) and Isaac Wright Jr.
| Credit: Giovanni Rufino/ABC via Getty Images

In a year that's been marked by a slew of high-profile police killings of Black people, Wright said criminal justice reform would be a topic of much focus were he to be elected.

And while he understands the anger spurred by viral videos — such as those of George Floyd's fatal arrest — Wright tells PEOPLE that he also understands that real justice will be about more than just disciplining a handful of officers.

"When I saw [the video of Floyd], I was angered by it. But I was not shocked. And I was not surprised by it," Wright says. "Specifically because I understood the undercurrent and the reasons why that happened."

"Just a look at the face of the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck is indicative of the cause behind what he was doing," Wright continues. "His face showed no concern. There was absolutely not an iota of [comprehension of] what he was doing ... But there's a bigger picture: the true blame. The blame in totality should be put on the system."

As politics tend to go, the path of Wright's campaign goes directly uphill: Even with his minor celebrity, he is an outsider in terms of fundraising and connections; and his candidacy may end up being more notable for the attention he draws in launching it.

But it's a challenge he says he's willing to face head on.

"In my experience in life, nothing good happens, most of the time, without a fight," Wright says. "You can scream, you can holler, you can protest — which are all good things, because we have to be heard — but no real, significant changes occur without rolling up your sleeves and getting into a fight."