Elected to fight crime and weed out corruption, former District Attorney Seth Williams ended up on the other end of the law.
Williams served close to three years in federal prison, returning home last April.
Since then he’s been reengaging publicly, mostly through Twitter, speaking out against the city’s gun violence and need for criminal justice reform.
We sat down with Williams to discuss his crime, what he learned during his time behind bars, and why people should listen to him now.
Get Philly local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Philadelphia newsletters.
“The lessons learned for me after June the 29th, 2017, I think have made me a much better person to talk with people about requisite changes, what's necessary to be changed and transformative in our criminal justice system,” he said.
On that day in June 2017, Williams pleaded guilty to taking a trip to a resort in Punta Cana paid by a business owner. In return, according to the feds, the business owner asked Williams to help a friend avoid jail time.
It was one of 29 federal corruption charges.
“I accepted the responsibility. Pled to one count of violation of the Travel Act,” he said, referencing the official charge of travel and use of interstate facilities to promote and facilitate bribery.
As part of the plea deal, Williams admitted in court to the other 28 charges, which included other bribery charges, defrauding his mother’s nursing home, stealing from his campaign funds and using government vehicles for personal use.
But Williams still bristles at the bribery accusation.
“I wasn't convicted of bribery, accepting bribes. But they are gifts, I should not have accepted. I should have reported all the gifts and I accept responsibility for that,” he said.
As an elected official, Williams had an obligation to report any gift worth more than $200.
“I recognize that I was living beyond my means, that that allowed me to make bad decisions. That I compounded those bad decisions with abusing alcohol,” he said. “And that I let down the citizens of Philadelphia.”
Seth Williams on Prison Life
In 2010, Seth Williams made history as Philadelphia’s first Black District Attorney. During his initial years in office, he had a number of successes, including helping reduce gun violence.
But his victories were wiped away in 2017 when he was locked up for corruption.
A federal judge sentenced him to five years in prison, shattering Williams’ political future. He had been previously talked about as a mayoral or U.S. Senate candidate.
“I flew on con air, handcuffed, the belly chain and leg irons on an airplane to Oklahoma City,” he said in an interview.
He was eventually transferred to a federal prison in West Virginia.
While he was in prison, Williams said he made some unlikely friends.
“You would think that this lawyer from Philadelphia has nothing in common with this meth dealer from Appalachia, where the reality is that, yes, we're different in many ways. And he chose to numb himself from his problems in a different way than I did, but the underlying reasons and the root problems were the same,” he said.
Then there was S.K.
“A guy whose nickname was S.K. because he was a serial killer, but he just talked to me, gave me good advice,” he said.
Williams said he taught GED courses and classical poetry to other inmates.
He learned to play the saxophone and enrolled in a 13-month alcohol abuse treatment program, which allowed him to shave one year off his sentence.
“I had to learn healthier ways to deal with stress, healthier ways to deal with all of those issues,” he said.
Williams returned home last April.
He said he had a hard time finding a place to live and work.
“I couldn't get an apartment because I have a felony record,” he said. “Many jobs I'm barred from trying to get, or people have problems with, because of a record.”
His first job after prison was stocking shelves overnight at a big box store.
Now, he’s working part-time at the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, using his professional experience and life behind bars to educate young people.
“The majority of what I do currently is with youth that are in diversionary programs and we have Zoom meetings and we try to talk to them. And so just a direct intervention,” he said.
He also has a little side gig as well: officiating weddings.
“I did a little online course and got certified,” he said. “It's just a wonderful thing when people on a great day in your life, people are just happy just seeing people are happy.”
But he’s been garnering attention recently for his tweeting about gun violence and criminal justice.
“It would be wrong of me to see the level of gun violence that we see and not do something about it, to remain silent, despite me being a felon,” he said.
Seth Williams on Return to Civilian Life in Philly
Williams said that it’s a combination of being a former DA -- especially during an era when the city’s homicides were at their lowest -- and perspective he gained in prison that make him a credible voice on criminal justice reform.
“It took me to go to jail to really learn what I think are the ways that we have to go about preventing crime and reducing recidivism,” he said.
While in prison, he said he learned that locking people up isn’t the answer to preventing crime.
“Provide community based mental health care before people act out, not waiting for them to act out,” he said.
Williams says many of the people he met in prison lacked skills and ability to maintain legal employment.
“We have to do all that we can to teach people those work readiness skills, show up on time, conflict resolution, literacy skills, financial literacy skills,” he said. “It's those types of things that make the difference.”
As district attorney, he sent to prison hundreds of people each year.
Now, he says he’s “ashamed” that he didn’t realize the collateral consequences of the criminal justice system.
In explaining that he didn’t know any better then, he quoted Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Williams is also working on his relationship with his family, particularly his daughters.
“They were hurt in ways that I can't even imagine. And it breaks my heart,” he said. “I know the rest of my life, I'll be trying to heal those relationships.”
His mother died in a nursing home shortly after he came back from prison. Because of COVID-19, he said he wasn’t able to see her in person but that they Facetimed.
“The nurses said, my mom said ‘Seth is home, he's safe. I don't need those, you know, life saving methods anymore. I know my little boy's safe.’ And she died Tuesday, two days later,” he said.
He declined to go into detail about the charges he admitted to in court but now denies -- that he defrauded his mom’s nursing home and took money meant for her, other than to say: “My mother knew the truth.”
“My mother knew what happened. And so my mother and I always had a wonderful relationship and she couldn't wait till I got home.”
Williams plans to stick around Philly, his hometown and a place he says he loves.
He also has no plans to fade into the distance anytime soon. In fact, he is planning to write a book (the working title is Man of Conviction, he said) about his time as DA all the way through life behind bars.
He joked that if a movie is made about him, he wants Dwayne Johnson to play him.
But for now, he said his focus is crime prevention and criminal justice reform
“I can easily just go hide in a hole somewhere. Some people might like that,” he said. “But I think the best use of all that's happened to me is to speak up and out about ways that we can help prevent crime.”