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For Life: History vs. Hollywood

Nicholas Pinnock
Born: September 2, 1973
London, England, UK
Isaac Wright Jr.
Birthplace: New Jersey, USA

Renamed Aaron Wallace in the Series
Joy Bryant
Born: October 18, 1974
The Bronx, New York, USA
Sunshine Wright
Born: June 5
Birthplace: New York City, New York, USA

Renamed Marie Wallace in the Series
Boris McGiver
Born: January 23, 1962
Cobleskill, New York, USA
Nicholas Bissell Jr.
Born: January 14, 1947
Birthplace: New Jersey, USA
Death: November 27, 1996, Laughlin, Nevada, USA (death by gunshot to avoid capture)
Timothy Busfield
Born: June 12, 1957
Lansing, Michigan, USA
Virginia Long
Born: March 1, 1942

Questioning the Story:

Were the names of the real people changed for the TV show?

Yes. The For Life true story reveals that the real inmate who became a lawyer was Isaac Wright Jr. His name was changed to Aaron Wallace for the ABC TV show. This mainly appears to be due to the fact that the series is only loosely based on his story. Other names were changed as well and in some cases genders.

Was the real Aaron Wallace a nightclub owner?

No. The real-life Aaron Wallace, whose name is Isaac Wright Jr., was an independent record producer. In 1986, he co-created the girl group The Cover Girls that included his wife Sunshine. The group had several hit songs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of their music videos can be found on YouTube. "Everything was really, really, really good," Wright told Esquire.

Was Isaac Wright Jr. divorced?

Yes. As stated above, he had been married to his wife, Sunshine Wright, before entering prison. In researching the true story behind For Life, we discovered that they indeed went through a divorce. In the ABC series, his wife is portrayed by Joy Bryant and her name is changed to Marie.

Like the character on the show, Isaac Wright Jr. had gone through a divorce.

Was Isaac Wright Jr. given life in prison for drug trafficking?

Yes. The charges against the character on the TV show are similar to the charges against Isaac Wright Jr. in real life, but they seem to have been trimmed down a little for the show. In real life, he was charged with 18 counts, including leading a drug trafficking network, maintaining or operating a narcotics production facility, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. At the time of his arrest, the authorities had alleged that Wright was making $30,000 a day from dealing cocaine to residents of Central Jersey.

Instead of paying for a lawyer, he had decided to represent himself at his trial. With only a high school diploma at the time, it's a decision that he now calls "insane." "I wasn't going to pay somebody to send me to prison," he told Esquire. In researching the For Life fact vs. fiction, we learned that he was convicted of all 18 charges and given life in prison for the drug kingpin charge. As part of his sentence, Wright would only become eligible for parole after serving 30 years.

How long was Isaac Wright Jr. in prison?

The real-life Aaron Wallace, Isaac Wright Jr., spent seven-and-a-half years in New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. "I was sentenced in 1991 to life in prison," he told the New York Post. "I was in for the [drug] kingpin count but there were several other counts that added up to [another] 70 years." In total, there were 18 counts levied against Wright.

Isaac Wright Jr. (left) in 1996 upon his release from prison. Actor Nicholas Pinnock (right) in the ABC For Life TV show.

Are the female warden and her wife based on real people?

No. We found no evidence that Indira Varma's character, the reform-minded warden, Safiya Masry, or her wife, district attorney candidate Anya (Mary Stuart Masterson), are based on real people. However, it is true that the real Aaron Wallace, whose real name is Isaac Wright Jr., had a close connection with the real-life warden.

Did Isaac Wright Jr. become a lawyer while in prison?

No. This is one of the more significant differences between the ABC For Life TV show and the true story. The real Aaron Wallace, whose name was actually Isaac Wright Jr., didn't begin his formal education until after he was released from prison. This was around the fall of 1998. It was then that he began attending Thomas Edison State University in Trenton for four years as an undergraduate. "I graduated from college in 2002, and then I went to law school at St. Thomas University in Miami in 2004," he told the New York Post.

One of the biggest historical inaccuracies on the TV show is the character becoming a lawyer while in prison. In real life, Isaac Wright Jr. didn't become a lawyer until long after he got out of prison.

This means that For Life's premise is somewhat fictional. It is true that while in prison, Wright taught himself law and helped other inmates get released or their sentences reduced, but he acted as a paralegal, not a lawyer. This doesn't necessarily make what he was able to accomplish any less significant. Instead of arguing cases in court like on the show, he composed briefs and handed them off to lawyers on the outside. Often, inmates had gotten lawyers on the cheap, and Wright was essentially the brains behind their defense.

It's true that Isaac Wright Jr. had accumulated years of research into his case, in addition to studying law.

Wright explained that the change was made for the TV show in part because it took him a long time to become a lawyer. First, he spent seven-and-a-half years in prison, then four years as an undergrad, followed by three years of law school, graduating in 2007 and passing the bar in 2008. Wright was then investigated for nine years by the New Jersey Bar Association's Committee on Character before he was given a license to practice law in the state. The TV show also changes the state in which he gets his law license to New York. As for whether someone could actually become a lawyer while in prison, the show's creators said that the loophole that allows the character to become a lawyer on the show is indeed based on an actual loophole in New Jersey law.

To learn more about the true story of how Isaac Wright Jr. became a lawyer, watch our video ABC's For Life Changes Isaac Wright Jr.'s Story in One Big Way. To follow our latest videos, Subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

How many fellow inmates did Isaac Wright Jr. help free while working as a paralegal from prison?

As mentioned above, unlike what's seen on the ABC For Life TV show, Isaac Wright Jr. didn't become a lawyer until years after he was released from prison. He did work as a paralegal on other prisoners' cases, and the true story behind For Life reveals that he helped free over 20 inmates, which is in line with the number of people he helps get out of prison on the show. "I got over 20 people out of prison, some with life sentences and others based on getting their sentences reduced," he told Esquire. He said that doing so helped him to fight back against the system and individuals who had wronged him, including Somerset County's chief prosecutor, Nicholas Bissell Jr.

Did Isaac Wright Jr. have a daughter?

Yes, like the character on the ABC TV show, Isaac Wright Jr. had a daughter. A For Life fact-check reveals that she was five years old when he entered prison. "A little girl growing up without a father can be very challenging for a young lady," Wright told CBS New York. "She came up into a time when she needed her father, 'cause, ya know, I wasn't there for seven-and-a-half years. And so, she began to reach her young teenage years while I was there, and she needed her dad."

It's true that Isaac Wright Jr. had a daughter whose childhood he missed while he was in prison.

Did Isaac Wright Jr. figure out a way to have his kingpin charge reversed?

Yes. After educating himself in New Jersey law, Wright came up with a legal strategy to get another inmate's kingpin charge removed. He authored a defense pro se brief, going after the kingpin jury instruction in State v. Alexander, 136 N.J. 563 (1994). Wright's arguments were successful. As he explained during a Sway's Universe interview, he used the ruling in Alexander to get his own kingpin conviction reversed. Even the then-assistant Somerset County prosecutor assigned to make sure Wright stayed behind bars called him "highly intelligent" and a "better brief writer than most attorneys" he'd encountered. Once Wright got the kingpin charge and his life sentence removed, he was still facing 17 other charges that amounted to 70 years in prison. -Medium

Did Isaac Wright Jr. get a veteran police officer to confess to misconduct in his case?

Yes. In answering the question, "How accurate is the ABC For Life TV show?" we learned that this happened during a 1996 evidentiary hearing. Wright cross-examined Detective James Dugan and was able to get him to admit to misconduct in his case. Dugan's admission of guilt lifted the veil on the broad level of corruption in Wright's case, in addition to the efforts to cover it up. The disgraced detective pled guilty to official misconduct so that he could avoid prison time.

Immediately, it became clear that Somerset County's head prosecutor, Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., was the orchestrator of the misconduct. His former Chief of Detectives, Richard Thornburg, confessed to being involved in the illegal seizure of cocaine and became the government's key witness against Bissell. By that time, Bissell's other crimes had already been exposed. -The Courier-News

How was Isaac Wright Jr. freed?

In 1996, the chief prosecutor on Wright's case, Nicholas Bissell Jr., was accused of trying to frame a judge who'd upset him. In addition, he was convicted of tax fraud, embezzlement, and other felonies. He had threatened to plant cocaine in the car of a business associate with whom he co-owned a gas station. "This wasn't just a rogue cop," Wright explained in an Esquire article. "This was the chief law enforcement officer threatening to plant cocaine."

After Wright got Detective James Dugan to confess to participating in misconduct orchestrated by his boss, Nicholas Bissell Jr., the prosecutor was tried and found guilty on 30 counts, including abuse of power, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Two days before his sentencing, Bissell cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet and went on the run. Eight days later, U.S. Marshalls found him holed up in a cheap motel in Nevada. As officers broke down his door, he stuck a gun in his mouth and committed suicide instead of turning himself in and facing a six-to-eight-year sentence.

Corrupt chief prosecutor Nicholas Bissell Jr. and actor Boris McGiver.

It was then that The New York Times looked back on Wright's case and discovered that Wright was now able to prove "that his 1991 conviction was based in part on an illegal seizure of cocaine by Mr. Bissell's detective squad and on perjured testimony by three co-defendants who had been offered leniency by Mr. Bissell." Wright told Esquire that there had been witnesses on the stand at his trial testifying against him who he had never seen a day in his life, yet they were pointing the finger at him claiming he was their boss. The prosecutor, Bissell, broke the law to convict Wright so that he could become the first prosecutor in the state of New Jersey to convict someone under the Drug Kingpin Statute. The truth had now become impossible to ignore.

As stated earlier, it's true that while in prison Wright had spent years working on his own case, in addition to helping other inmates (as a paralegal, not a lawyer). However, he didn't secure his freedom entirely on his own. He did so with the help of his lawyer, Francis Hartman. On December 17, 1996, Wright was released on a bail of $250,000, a sum raised by his supporters and friends. The judge had ordered a new trial, but the new prosecutor decided to delay Wright's retrial "indefinitely."

Was the judge who presided over Isaac Wright Jr.'s original trial corrupt?

Yes. The judge who presided over Wright's case, Judge Michael Imbriani, was also involved in the plot against Wright. Imbriani was removed from the bench and ended up going to jail on theft charges.

Was Isaac Wright Jr. innocent of all the charges against him?

The For Life true story is a bit murkier on this matter than the TV series. On the ABC show, the main character's disreputable friend hides drugs at his club. When the police raid the club, they assume the drugs belong to him and not his friend. The TV version of Wright finds himself convicted of drug trafficking and he's given a sentence of life in prison for the drug kingpin charge. We root for him because we know he's an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted.

In a 2020 interview with CBS New York, the real-life Wright was asked specifically how he wound up facing drug charges. He avoided the question by talking about the various ways that the prosecutor on his case, Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., emerged as being corrupt. He reasoned that the prosecutor's corruption created an environment that led to him being wrongfully condemned as a drug kingpin, which is true. However, we found no interviews where Wright actually denies dealing or being involved with drugs. He only denies being a kingpin. Drug evidence was seized without a warrant from Wright's co-defendant, and Bissell's colleagues never reported the seizure. Wright has never clarified if all of the 17 remaining counts that he was convicted on were false.

News reports at the time of his release state that Wright may have been a drug dealer as prosecutors and police claimed, but what is certain is that he wasn't given a fair trial. This might also explain why the New Jersey Bar Association's Committee on Character investigated him for nine years before granting him a license to practice law. In the end, Wright's conviction was indeed a miscarriage of justice, but in real life, Wright has neither confirmed or denied if he was actually guilty of any of the lesser charges levied against him. On the show, his innocence is clear.

Isaac Wright Jr. and his onscreen counterpart portrayed by Nicholas Pinnock.

Was Isaac Wright Jr. involved in the making of the TV show that tells his story?

Yes. An executive producer on the ABC For Life TV show is Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. Wright met the rapper in 2016 when 50 Cent found himself in a tricky situation after being invited to perform at an illegal fight club in the Bronx called the BX Fight Club. If he performed and someone posted it to YouTube, he could lose his promoter's license. After wasting money on lawyers who ultimately weren't able to figure out how to make the club legal, the owner of the club contacted Wright, who solved the problem in two weeks. Wright figured out how to make the club legal, which allowed 50 Cent to perform there without worry.

The club owner told 50 Cent about Wright's backstory and 50 set up a meeting so he could sit down with Wright. Not only did the two men become friends, 50 Cent was intrigued enough to ask Wright if he could turn his story into a TV series. Wright agreed and insisted on negotiating his contract directly with Sony. "I kept my movie rights. I only gave my rights to a TV series," he told the New York Post. Wright is also an executive producer on For Life and worked closely with British actor Nicholas Pinnock, even loaning him a ring to wear on the show.

Isaac Wright Jr. on the For Life set with actor Nicholas Pinnock.

After he became an attorney, did Isaac Wright Jr. ever return to the courtroom where his original trial was held?

Yes. In exploring the true story behind For Life, we learned that Wright returned to the same courtroom in 2017, only this time as an attorney.

What is Isaac Wright Jr. doing today?

Isaac Wright Jr. is licensed to practice law in the state of New Jersey, and (as of 2020) he is currently a general practitioner with the law firm Hunt, Hamlin, and Ridley, where he specializes in criminal law. "I went to law school for one reason and one reason only," says Wright. "To slay giants for a price. And if the giant is big enough and the cause is important enough, I’ll do it for free, especially when it involves helping those who cannot help themselves."

Isaac Wright Jr. Interview & Related "For Life" Videos

Expand your knowledge of the For Life fact vs. fiction by watching the Isaac Wright Jr. interview below. He's accompanied by actor Nicholas Pinnock, who portrays a character inspired by him on the ABC TV show.