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

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

But it could be months – or years – before 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 done … to transform himself”. In addition to co-producing and co-hosting the Pulitzer Prize-nominated show, Thomas, 51, writes for the San Quentin News, the Marshall Project and Current; chairs a Society of Professional Journalists chapter; mentors youth; co-founded a non-profit for incarcerated writers; and directed a Sundance documentary short.

The commutation of his sentence for second-degree murder and related charges allows Thomas for the first time to go before the parole board, which will then decide whether he is “suitable” for release. But it could be months before his hearing date, and if he is denied parole, as the majority of incarcerated people are after their first board appearance, it would be more than a year before he gets another shot.

The uncertainty is not stopping Thomas from mapping out ambitious plans for life after incarceration. The New York native recently spoke to the Guardian by phone about his 21 years behind bars, his career goals and what he’s learned about the system. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Congratulations on the news. What was your reaction when you got the call?

I was happy, of course, and proud. It’s a great honor for the governor to recognize that you’re a different person today than you were 20 something years ago. And I was relieved. Until he commuted my sentence, I didn’t have a path to freedom. Freedom was something that was hypothetical, with changes in law that might happen one day. But now the clock starts for my freedom. Now I get to be scheduled for a parole board hearing. I don’t know if I’ll make the first one, but at least I’ll get to talk about it. And if I get denied, I’ll go a couple years later and try again, and I’ll keep trying until I get out. For a guy like me in prison with all of these [Covid] lockdowns, the sooner the better. It’s a race against the next Covid variant.

How are you feeling about going before the parole board?

I’m grateful for this opportunity that I didn’t have before, but I also recognize that it’s going to be hard. You have to talk about the worst thing you’ve ever done and all your trauma. I know a lot of great people that are out [of prison] now, but the board didn’t see their greatness their first hearing. You can go in there nervous and blow your answers. Even though I’m not confident that I’ll make it the first time, I believe I’ll make it the second time, and hopefully be home by 2025. And in the meantime, I’ll keep doing Ear Hustle, keep writing and keep getting better.

I know the parole hearing is a long process, but I’d love to hear what your overall message will be to the board?

I think the primary thing is that I’m a different person, and the person I am today is an asset to the community. The debt I owe, I could never pay. But I’m not paying it in prison. Prison was a place to put me to punish me. But now, it costs $106,000 a year [to incarcerate me] – that’s money taken away from schools and Covid relief. And I think I’m a person that can bring violence down on the outside. I’m a person that is making a difference in this world and I just want a chance to pay taxes and pay society back.

I don’t know how far ahead you have thought, but what are your plans for your first few years out?

I hope I come home in time for Ear Hustle to still be there, for me to get a job. I’m also part of a program called Squires where I mentor at-risk youth. I want to continue that on the outside and be on the frontlines. That’s my way of staying grounded in the work and what’s going on in the community, so I can try to come up with solutions.

But the big thing I want to do is to write books. I’m writing stories that take on the challenges of [prison abolition organizer and writer] Mariame Kaba who wrote a book called We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. She talks about how people can’t imagine what change looks like, because they have never seen it before. They can’t imagine a world without prisons, because there are people who did really harmful, harmful stuff and will do it again if let out. So how do we change that behavior? How do we stop these cycles of violence?

That’s great – how have you been thinking about solutions?

I’m writing books that imagine these solutions, and they’re real. They’re real to me, because I’m in San Quentin, a prison that was once notorious and very dangerous – and it turned into one of the nicest places I’ve ever been, where celebrities come hang out [with arts, education and other programs that bring people in from the outside]. I’ve seen the impact of therapy, and having a connection to the community, feeling like you’re part of this society, and not some outcast that can’t even vote, like a refugee in your own country, being connected to a society that cares about you and has support for you, and what that looks like, and how that helps and how that changes people. If we can do that in a prison, why can’t we do that in our neighborhoods? How can we change the conditions so you don’t have to get these services after you’re incarcerated, after somebody is harmed and you can’t repair that harm, ever. I want to tell those stories.

It sounds like the community in San Quentin and your work with Ear Hustle have really changed you.

It’s life changing. When I was 19, I went to prison for two years and made the decision to do right when I came home, and I did at first. But my trauma got triggered. I got stressed about poverty, injustices with my little brother, all this stuff and I relapsed and went back to my old ways. My old ways were never gone because I never dealt with my trauma and I never healed. In San Quentin, not only have I found a trade I love, but I met all these incredible people and community members. Growing up [in Brownsville in Brooklyn], I lived in a segregated neighborhood with all Black and Puerto Rican people and limited resources. I felt like nobody cared about me, like the world was unjust and the laws were designed for me to fail. I didn’t feel an obligation to society, because I felt like society didn’t care about me.

I don’t feel like that anymore. I learned why my neighborhood was so messed up, that it’s bigger than just the people and the trauma. That it’s systemic, it’s what was done to us for generations. I was also trying to be a writer for 13 years and it didn’t start really poppin until I got to San Quentin. It’s the worst conditions, but it’s the best prison for opportunities. I want that opportunity to exist in Brownsville, in Oakland, in Los Angeles. I want it to be a before, not an after.

What do you want the public to know about others behind bars like you who may not get the same opportunity to come home?

I’m going to go home with a list of names of people that I feel have been ignored or forgotten about. I have a little campaign going now at FreeRahsaan.com, with t-shirts to raise money, and when I get home I want to keep the momentum going. There’s one guy I know who has done 30 years already because of the three strikes laws. It was a horrible crime, but the person he is today, I know it will never happen again. I also created this program called Empowerment Avenue [for incarcerated writers and artists] to help people develop the right careers in prison and come home to a society that is ready for them with open arms.

I’m creating the opportunity that I had in San Quentin the best way I can for people in other prisons. So these people exist to the world, because their writing is out there, they are making these connections, these editors know them. And so if they’re trying to prove their case to a governor, they’ll have that kind of support that I have, because they are known and part of society, and are not behind a wall, hidden and invisible.

There is a lot of public attention on your case – what message do you want to share to your supporters?

I can never say I deserve freedom. I can just say it doesn’t make sense for me to be here anymore. People say I earned it and ‘good job’, and I just want people to know I can’t earn it. There’s nothing I can do to make up for what I did, it’s impossible. I can’t bring this person back. I don’t say his name, without the permission from the family, but I try to honor him by making amends. And I can at least pay society back in a better way, or do the best I can to pay an unpayable debt.

And for other people who are incarcerated, I say just keep doing good. Don’t give in to hopelessness. I was sentenced to 55 to life – and there was no reason to be a good person when you have that sentence. I started at 29 years old. I was going to be 85 before I saw a parole board, and Black people just don’t live that long. I had to find hope in the next life. I got into religion, became a Muslim. And that faith, whether God exists or not, kept me good enough and on the right enough path to have this opportunity now. Just find a way to be productive and be of service.

Do you feel hopeful about progress and changes to the system?

I do, though I was kind of shocked to see the stories about the retail thefts and see the news blow things out of proportion. It’s not anything new, but the news kept it on repeat. Homicides are up – not to the level of the 80s and 90s, but they are up. So we’re in this moment where money is shifting from the police to the neighborhoods, but with homicides going up, is it going to shift back? Are people going to understand that it’s Covid and the trauma and poverty and the other underlying root causes, and that we’re not going to solve this with handcuffs, and that if we leave the root causes, the next individual will take up the same cycle? I’m hoping that people are smarter than that. And we keep pushing to put resources into the neighborhoods that solve the root causes.

I know it’s a cliche question, but what food are you most looking forward to eating?

Shrimp, steaks and asparagus. All the Italian food.

What else are you most excited to do?

Besides finding a wife, sex and food (laughs), it’s the simple things, like driving around in a car, and traveling. I’ve never left the country. I want to go to Japan and France and Amsterdam and England. I’ve got about one more minute to chat with you before the [guard cuts us off], but I want to have an opportunity to just be free, and take what I learned in prison and apply it to the world, and see how it works. I’m looking forward to that challenge.

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