Donald Gilliard, a motivational speaker and a political consultant, stands next to a sign at a church in Oklahoma where he spoke this past weekend.
Georgetown native Donald Gilliard spent 20 years of a life sentence behind bars after being convicted of conspiracy to import a kilogram of heroin from Thailand into the U.S. in 1991.
The package, addressed to Gilliard’s mother, was intercepted by U.S. Customs, according to court records.
Since his release in September 2010 he has been working to help others and better his community.
Gilliard has worked as a political advisor to several area politicians and as a motivational speaker.
He is now working on a book to share his story. He also wrote the forward for a children’s book by Antonio Barnes titled “Prison is Not a Play Ground.”
This past weekend, Gilliard told his story during a national conference in Oklahoma entitled “A Christian Approach to The Next Jim Crow: What’s Next? Rethink, Take Action, Live the Solution.”
“The whole idea of the conference deals with mass incarceration, which is more in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation in the world,” Gilliard said.
“I think we have to look at different ways to handle the problems in our society, especially non-violent crime.”
He explained that many released prisoners find it almost impossible to find a job, somewhere to live and ways to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, he said, many of them return to a life of crime and some end up back in prison.
“As smart as we are as a country, tackling sophisticated issues, we are not sophisticated in the way we handle the drug problem,” Gilliard said.
“It is estimated that each prisoner costs taxpayers $30,000 per year, so it is fiscally responsible to help people released from prison integrate back into society.”
Dr. Elaine Robinson, dean of the St. Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University, was also a speaker at the conference.
She agreed that changes need to be made to sentencing laws in this country.
Robinson said Gilliard is the perfect example of a person whose sentence did not fit the crime.
“Here is a guy who is educated and articulate. He never committed a violent crime and he was sentenced to life in prison,” Robinson said.
“I think it is interesting that the judge who sentenced him didn’t even want to, but was forced to by the laws. And it was the same judge who released him 20 years later.”
She was referring to Senior U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. who had to follow strict mandatory sentencing laws in 1991 which have since been modified.
S.C. Rep. Carl Anderson, Georgetown Police Chief Paul Gardner and Gilliard’s family were instrumental in getting him a new trial, Gilliard said.
“I spoke to the federal judge at his hearing,” said Anderson, who has known Gilliard and his relatives for many years.
“He came out of a good family and got caught in a situation. Now that he is out, I think he could be a mentor for local youth, letting them know what prison life is all about.”
Gilliard graduated from Howard High School in Georgetown and attended college at South Carolina State and the University of Arkansas at Pinebluff.
As a senior he was the first South Carolinian to win the National Elks Oratorical Contest, he said.
In 1978, he worked on the Ed Young campaign for governor, and then many other campaigns.
“I think it is important for candidates to understand the community in which they serve and that all the people have a voice,” Gilliard said. “I became the gate keeper for ordinary, average people.”
In prison, he worked to help other prisoners better themselves and directed a play called “God’s Trombone” in each prison where he was held.
During preparation for one of those productions, Gilliard contacted a special couple, Tom and Sarah Hardiman, to borrow robes from their church.
He was surprised when they asked if the congregation could come to see the play.
“A lot of folks there looked up to him, trying to follow in his footsteps,” Tom Hardiman said. “He worked with about 30 guys on that play and I’m sure he had a hard time getting them to follow his lead. He was always talking about doing things for guys in prison, including tutoring.”
Gilliard, who was then looking at a life sentence, told the Hardimans he would one day worship in their church. That promise was realized this past weekend when he spoke in front of their congregation.
After his release from prison, he worked with The Hilliard Law Firm in Georgetown and Preston Brittain’s campaign for South Carolina’s new 7th Congressional District.
He has applied to work on another campaign for the November election.
In addition to the Oklahoma conference, Gilliard has spoken to groups around the country, including Community Specialized Services, Inc., which provides treatment foster care for children who have mental health issues or are involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Director Wendy Rice said Gilliard was well-received by the group of about 75 parents.
“Sometimes parents give up on kids when they get in trouble, but Donald Gilliard talked to them about being committed to the kids even through challenging times,” Rice said.
She added that the issue of mass incarceration is important to many people in our society.
“During his talk, he asked the parents if they knew anyone in prison and almost every hand was raised,” she said.
To contact Donald Gilliard for speaking engagements, call 843-240-0432.
By Clayton Stairs
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