Rahsaan Thomas, the Ear Hustle host, on clemency and life after prison: ‘I want to tell our stories’ | US prisons

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas the acclaimed journalist who co-hosts the Ear Hustle podcast from inside San Quentin jail, was granted clemency this month, prompting celebrations from listeners and supporters throughout the nation.

But it surely might be months – or years – earlier than he walks free.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, granted Thomas a commutation for his sentence of 55 years to life, acknowledging the “work he has executed … to rework himself”. As well as to co-producing and co-hosting the Pulitzer Prize-nominated present, Thomas, 51, writes for the San Quentin News, the Marshall Project and Current; chairs a Society of Skilled Journalists chapter; mentors youth; co-founded a non-profit for incarcerated writers; and directed a Sundance documentary brief.

The commutation of his sentence for second-degree homicide and associated costs permits Thomas for the first time to go earlier than the parole board, which can then determine whether or not he’s “appropriate” for launch. But it surely might be months earlier than his listening to date, and if he’s denied parole, as the majority of incarcerated individuals are after their first board look, it might be greater than a 12 months earlier than he will get one other shot.


Together with being a podcast host, author and youth mentor, Thomas can also be the co-founder of a jail non-profit. {Photograph}: Courtesy of Ear Hustle

The uncertainty shouldn’t be stopping Thomas from mapping out bold plans for life after incarceration. The New York native lately spoke to the Guardian by telephone about his 21 years behind bars, his profession targets and what he’s discovered about the system. The dialog has been edited and condensed for readability.

Congratulations on the information. What was your response whenever you acquired the name?

I used to be completely satisfied, after all, and proud. It’s an ideal honor for the governor to acknowledge that you just’re a unique particular person immediately than you had been 20 one thing years in the past. And I used to be relieved. Till he commuted my sentence, I didn’t have a path to freedom. Freedom was one thing that was hypothetical, with adjustments in legislation which may occur at some point. However now the clock begins for my freedom. Now I get to be scheduled for a parole board listening to. I don’t know if I’ll make the first one, however at the very least I’ll get to discuss it. And if I get denied, I’ll go a pair years later and attempt once more, and I’ll preserve making an attempt till I get out. For a man like me in jail with all of those [Covid] lockdowns, the sooner the higher. It’s a race in opposition to the subsequent Covid variant.


How are you feeling about going earlier than the parole board?

I’m grateful for this chance that I didn’t have earlier than, however I additionally acknowledge that it’s going to be arduous. You’ve got to discuss the worst factor you’ve ever executed and all of your trauma. I do know loads of nice individuals which are out [of prison] now, however the board didn’t see their greatness their first listening to. You’ll be able to go in there nervous and blow your solutions. Though I’m not assured that I’ll make it the first time, I imagine I’ll make it the second time, and hopefully be house by 2025. And in the meantime, I’ll preserve doing Ear Hustle, preserve writing and preserve getting higher.

The Pulitzer finalist was granted clemency by California governor Gavin Newsom this month.The Pulitzer finalist was granted clemency by California governor Gavin Newsom this month. {Photograph}: Courtesy of UnCommon Regulation

I do know the parole listening to is an extended course of, however I’d love to hear what your total message can be to the board?


I feel the major factor is that I’m a unique particular person, and the particular person I’m immediately is an asset to the group. The debt I owe, I might by no means pay. However I’m not paying it in jail. Jail was a spot to put me to punish me. However now, it costs $106,000 a 12 months [to incarcerate me] – that’s cash taken away from colleges and Covid reduction. And I feel I’m an individual that may deliver violence down on the exterior. I’m an individual that’s making a distinction on this world and I simply want an opportunity to pay taxes and pay society again.

I don’t understand how far forward you’ve gotten thought, however what are your plans in your first few years out?

I hope I come house in time for Ear Hustle to nonetheless be there, for me to get a job. I’m additionally a part of a program referred to as Squires the place I mentor at-risk youth. I want to proceed that on the exterior and be on the frontlines. That’s my approach of staying grounded in the work and what’s going on in the group, so I can attempt to provide you with options.

However the large factor I want to do is to write books. I’m writing tales that take on the challenges of [prison abolition organizer and writer] Mariame Kaba who wrote a e book referred to as We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. She talks about how individuals can’t think about what change seems to be like, as a result of they’ve by no means seen it earlier than. They’ll’t think about a world with out prisons, as a result of there are individuals who did actually dangerous, dangerous stuff and will do it once more if let loose. So how do we alter that conduct? How can we cease these cycles of violence?

That’s nice – how have you ever been serious about options?

I’m writing books that think about these options, and they’re actual. They’re actual to me, as a result of I’m in San Quentin, a jail that was as soon as infamous and very harmful – and it was certainly one of the nicest locations I’ve ever been, the place celebrities come hang around [with arts, education and other programs that bring people in from the outside]. I’ve seen the influence of remedy, and having a connection to the group, feeling such as you’re a part of this society, and not some outcast that may’t even vote, like a refugee in your personal nation, being linked to a society that cares about you and has help for you, and what that appears like, and how that helps and how that adjustments individuals. If we are able to do this in a jail, why can’t we do this in our neighborhoods? How can we alter the circumstances so that you don’t have to get these providers after you’re incarcerated, after any individual is harmed and you’ll be able to’t restore that hurt, ever. I want to tell these tales.

Filmmaker Ken Burns walks with Thomas at San Quentin State Prison in California.Filmmaker Ken Burns walks with Thomas at San Quentin State Jail in California. {Photograph}: Eric Risberg/AP

It appears like the group in San Quentin and your work with Ear Hustle have actually modified you.

It’s life altering. After I was 19, I went to jail for 2 years and made the resolution to do proper once I got here house, and I did at first. However my trauma acquired triggered. I acquired harassed about poverty, injustices with my little brother, all these items and I relapsed and went again to my outdated methods. My outdated methods had been by no means gone as a result of I by no means handled my trauma and I by no means healed. In San Quentin, not solely have I discovered a commerce I like, however I met all these unimaginable individuals and group members. Rising up [in Brownsville in Brooklyn], I lived in a segregated neighborhood with all Black and Puerto Rican individuals and restricted assets. I felt like no person cared about me, like the world was unjust and the legal guidelines had been designed for me to fail. I didn’t really feel an obligation to society, as a result of I felt like society didn’t care about me.

I don’t really feel like that anymore. I discovered why my neighborhood was so tousled, that it’s larger than simply the individuals and the trauma. That it’s systemic, it’s what was executed to us for generations. I used to be additionally making an attempt to be a author for 13 years and it didn’t begin actually poppin till I acquired to San Quentin. It’s the worst circumstances, nevertheless it’s the greatest jail for alternatives. I want that chance to exist in Brownsville, in Oakland, in Los Angeles. I want it to be a earlier than, not an after.

What do you want the public to learn about others behind bars such as you who might not get the identical alternative to come house?

I’m going to go house with a listing of names of those who I really feel have been ignored or forgotten about. I’ve somewhat marketing campaign going now at, with t-shirts to increase cash, and once I get house I want to preserve the momentum going. There’s one man I do know who has executed 30 years already due to the three strikes legal guidelines. It was a horrible crime, however the particular person he’s immediately, I do know it’s going to by no means occur once more. I additionally created this program referred to as Empowerment Avenue [for incarcerated writers and artists] to assist individuals develop the proper careers in jail and come house to a society that’s prepared for them with open arms.

I’m creating the alternative that I had in San Quentin the greatest approach I can for individuals in different prisons. So these individuals exist to the world, as a result of their writing is on the market, they’re making these connections, these editors know them. And so in the event that they’re making an attempt to show their case to a governor, they’ll have that sort of help that I’ve, as a result of they’re recognized and a part of society, and are usually not behind a wall, hidden and invisible.

There may be loads of public consideration on your case – what message do you want to share to your supporters?

I can by no means say I deserve freedom. I can simply say it doesn’t make sense for me to be right here anymore. Individuals say I earned it and ‘good job’, and I simply want individuals to know I can’t earn it. There’s nothing I can do to make up for what I did, it’s inconceivable. I can’t deliver this particular person again. I don’t say his identify, with out the permission from the household, however I attempt to honor him by making amends. And I can at the very least pay society again in a greater approach, or do the greatest I can to pay an unpayable debt.

An aerial view San Quentin State Prison in California.An aerial view San Quentin State Jail in California. {Photograph}: Justin Sullivan/Getty Pictures

And for different people who find themselves incarcerated, I say simply preserve doing good. Don’t give in to hopelessness. I used to be sentenced to 55 to life – and there was no motive to be a great particular person when you’ve gotten that sentence. I began at 29 years outdated. I used to be going to be 85 earlier than I noticed a parole board, and Black individuals simply don’t dwell that lengthy. I had to discover hope in the subsequent life. I acquired into faith, turned a Muslim. And that religion, whether or not God exists or not, stored me adequate and on the proper sufficient path to have this chance now. Simply discover a approach to be productive and be of service.

Do you are feeling hopeful about progress and adjustments to the system?

I do, although I used to be sort of shocked to see the tales about the retail thefts and see the information blow issues out of proportion. It’s not something new, however the information stored it on repeat. Homicides are up – not to the stage of the 80s and 90s, however they’re up. So we’re on this second the place cash is shifting from the police to the neighborhoods, however with homicides going up, is it going to shift again? Are individuals going to perceive that it’s Covid and the trauma and poverty and the different underlying root causes, and that we’re not going to remedy this with handcuffs, and that if we depart the root causes, the subsequent particular person will take up the identical cycle? I’m hoping that individuals are smarter than that. And we preserve pushing to put assets into the neighborhoods that remedy the root causes.

I do know it’s a cliche query, however what meals are you most wanting ahead to consuming?

Shrimp, steaks and asparagus. All the Italian meals.

What else are you most excited to do?

Moreover discovering a spouse, intercourse and meals (laughs), it’s the easy issues, like driving round in a automobile, and touring. I’ve by no means left the nation. I want to go to Japan and France and Amsterdam and England. I’ve acquired about yet one more minute to chat with you earlier than the [guard cuts us off], however I want to have a possibility to simply be free, and take what I discovered in jail and apply it to the world, and see the way it works. I’m wanting ahead to that problem.

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