After 20 years in federal prison, Duluth's Lyle Wildes keeps a positive attitude
A two-decade sentence for manufacturing and distributing cocaine proved to be a turning point for the Wisconsin native, who has transitioned to a career aimed at improving the lives of others facing incarceration.
DULUTH — Lyle Wildes' life changed dramatically when his car slammed into a bridge at 60 mph on Jan. 16, 1972.
His front teeth thrust into the steering wheel, the 26-year-old suffered extensive injuries to his jawbone, mouth, nose, eye sockets and forehead. The impact was so violent, doctors told him, that his entire skull shifted back an eighth of an inch.
But as gruesome as the physical injuries were, Wildes said his personality changed even more.
Before the crash, the Wisconsin native had worked for a bank, taught college philosophy and operated a successful trucking business. After it, he cut off contact with his family, physically abused his girlfriend and found a more thrilling and lucrative career in the underground world of manufacturing and distributing cocaine.
"If I wouldn't have had that automobile accident I never would've went to prison," Wildes told the News Tribune recently. "I just wasn't that kind of guy before. But after that accident, once I got out of the hospital, I didn't give a damn about anybody or anything."
Wildes has been on a unique journey since he was first locked up some 35 years ago. Rather than languish in prison, he decided to figure out how ended up there. He invested his time in studying the human brain, determined to learn how people make decisions and what causes a select few to engage in criminal behavior.
Wildes quickly created a course known as Positive Attitude Development, and, earning the trust of prison officials, was allowed to teach it to fellow inmates at several facilities over his 20 years in prison.
When finally released into the community in December 2007, Wildes settled in Duluth and expanded his efforts, forming partnerships with domestic violence groups, government and nonprofit agencies and university researchers as he continues to study the brain and work to address the root causes of criminal impulses in individuals.
"He has a remarkable ability to translate research into actual actions that people can take," said St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, who employed Wildes for eight years at Men as Peacemakers. "Whether he's talking to someone coming out of prison or a doctor, his way of describing things and inviting people to look at something a different way is really impactful."
As he turns 77 next month, the self-described "brain coach" is showing no signs of slowing down, continuing to work with clients teetering on the edge of incarceration and advocating for reforms within a criminal justice system that he says remains far more focused on punitive measures and not restorative efforts.
"I always say I spent 20 years growing up, 20 years messed up and 20 years locked up," Wildes said, "but I never gave up, and that's why I'm speaking up."
From farmer to drug dealer
Wildes grew up on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, roughly 30 miles from Wisconsin Dells. As a child, he said he was ingrained with core values of frugality, loyalty, promptness and integrity.
When he got his first job at the bank, Wildes said it quickly became apparent the slower-paced and more lavish lifestyle wasn't for him.
"One day I walked into the president's office and said, 'That's it,' and gave him only one of my five fingers as I walked out," he explained.
Having abandoned a wrestling scholarship, Wildes took on a job delivering refrigerators while he worked his way through the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he found a true passion: studying philosophy and sociology.
He taught philosophy for a short time and had a booming business moving mobile homes when the single-car crash occurred 50 years ago.
That led to what Wildes now describes as a "special journey" as an underground chemist.
"The cost was down and the profits were up," he said. "But what I didn't realize is that I was destroying my own community."
Wildes, disowned by his parents, said he was living with a girlfriend who wanted a different lifestyle.
"I beat her, so she would live the way I wanted her to," he said. "She got pissed off at me and called the cops and told them where my lab was."
Wildes was sentenced to four years in a Wisconsin state prison before the feds came calling. Convicted of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz handed down a stiff, 22-year sentence.
Fighting the 'negativism of incarceration'
Prison is a highly structured environment, Wildes said. But he brought a philosophical approach to the situation, following an example he had read from the imprisonment of Saint John of the Cross.
"I decided I would live a more restricted life than the prison environment would allow me," Wildes explained. "Therefore, I would never be incarcerated. They had no control over me. They could take whatever they wanted and I still wouldn't care."
In prison, Wildes said he set a goal for himself to read 50 pages of nonfiction every day, mostly on neurology and related topics — adding up to some 1,500-2,000 books over the duration of his sentence.
Reflecting on how his life had changed — from the humble, hardworking farm life to the greed and instant gratification he received from drug manufacturing — Wildes said he came to realize humans are guided by a set of core values that guide their day-to-day decisions. But, he said, we also carry a set of negative traits that can cause us to violate our stated values.
That thinking became the basis for the course he began teaching fellow inmates while serving at federal prisons in Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota and Minnesota. What began as a single, 20-week program turned into a whole five-part series of classes.
"I started to ask the guys, 'What do you value most in life?" he said. "They would say 'freedom' and 'family.' And I said, 'Well, guys, I think that's bulls***, because if you valued family and freedom you wouldn't be in jail."
The goal of the course, Wildes said, was to "repel the negativism of incarceration" by helping each inmate identify their core values and learn the triggers that cause them to violate those beliefs.
Continuing the work on the outside
Wildes finished his sentence at the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, where his work was noticed by a cellmate, retired minister and peace activist Brooks Anderson, who was serving three months for trespassing at a Georgia military installation.
Anderson encouraged him to stay in Duluth after his release, even getting him set up to stay with local couple John and Lynn Clark Pegg.
Needing a job to maintain his parole eligibility, Jewell, then director of Men as Peacemakers, brought Wildes on as office administrator for the Duluth-based restorative justice program that works with men accused of violence against women and children.
Wildes began leading domestic violence restorative circles at Men as Peacemakers, while also facilitating groups for the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project and teaching his Positive Attitude Development course for SOAR Career Solutions' Community Offender Re-entry Program.
"He's a pretty independent, lone-wolf operator, but he gets stuff done and has great ideas," said Dr. Joel Bamford, a retired Duluth dermatologist and longtime volunteer with local domestic abuse programs.
"He was a totally, unusually great contribution to our community when he started teaching the domestic violence circles. ... He's lived the life. He made me realize that I've lived a totally easy life, and maybe that's not the best example. He knows how other people live in Duluth, the Range, America."
Wildes, who now operates the nonprofit Positive Attitude Development Group from downtown Duluth's Center for Non-Violence, has since been retained by entities including Save Haven, Men as Peacemakers, Life House, Carlton County and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to help employees establish organization core values.
Dave Lee, director of Carlton County Public Health and Human Services, hired Wildes to meet with the agency's roughly 150 employees when they transitioned from five separate locations into one in 2011.
He said Wildes brought in a list of 40 or 50 values and worked through differences between departments to help staff identify their six core values, which are now posted in the building and a key part of the application and interview process.
“It continues to benefit us today," Lee said. "There were some very difficult decisions involved in that process, but Lyle was the guy who was able to help us through it.”
Slowing the conveyor belt to prison
Shortly after his prison release, Wildes said he received a rather unlikely invitation. U.S. District Judge William Conley asked him to visit the federal courthouse in Wisconsin, the same building where he was long ago sentenced, to speak with the probation officers for the Western District of Wisconsin.
It's one of many community speaking engagements received by Wildes in recent years. He has no qualms about sharing the more painful elements of his life story or offering his unfiltered opinions on the current state of affairs in the criminal justice system.
"What I've found is that that too many people are working to have prison reform, too many people are working in reentry, too many people are trying to solve the problems, but they're not addressing the cause of the problem," he said.
"When I went into prison, there were 22,000 people in federal prison. When I got out, there was 222,000. So the question is: Why has that conveyor belt bringing them in never slowed up?"
Wildes entered into a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons a couple of years ago to have his Positive Attitude Development curriculum taught by fellow inmates at prisons in Sandstone and Rochester in Minnesota and Oxford in Wisconsin. But that was put on hold by pandemic lockdown restrictions, so he's just now resuming the initiative.
Calling incarceration "a destruction to the human brain," he said the tough-on-crime, throw-away-the-key approach that became particularly prevalent by the 1990s has done nothing to help offenders return as productive members of society. Wildes said most inmates he's known have lived traumatic lives, often starting with physical or sexual abuse in childhood.
"Why don't we see if we can repair those brains instead?" he asked.
Jewell, who works frequently on incarceration and probation issues as chair of the Arrowhead Regional Corrections executive board, said Wildes was simply ahead of his time.
"I'm seeing how so much of the correctional work today is focused on training and changing behavior," Jewell said. "It's the very thing that Lyle was saying 25 or 30 years ago and has been working on ever since."