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From Serving Life to Liberating Others Through Journalism: Rahsaan “New York” Thomas

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas was invited as a guest speaker by the journalism department at Hunter College on Thursday, Nov 2. Thomas became a journalist, writer, director, producer, social justice activist, and podcaster, all while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Thomas told the room that he believes “there is no competition if we have the same mission.” His mission is to advocate for the incarcerated. Thomas describes San Quentin as making him feel included and part of society, unlike other prisons that make you feel small. During Thomas’s 10 years at San Quentin, rehabilitation was taken seriously. He earned an associate’s degree and became a staff writer for the San Quentin News, which distributes to prisons throughout California. He started co-hosting Ear Hustle, a podcast about prison life that in 2020 was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He also produced three documentaries from beginning to end there. 

Between June 2020 and February 2023, when he was paroled, Thomas published 42 articles with the help of Empowerment Avenue, a nonprofit he co-founded while at San Quentin to help connect incarcerated writers and artists to outside publications and galleries. Outlets that have featured the organization’s writers include The Marshall Project, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and Vice, to name just a few. “What we do is so beautiful; we get the voices of incarcerated people on major platforms,” said Thomas. 

Since California governor Gavin Newsom commuted Thomas’s sentence, Thomas has dedicated his life to his mission. He is currently studying cinema and communications at San Francisco State University.

In early November, Thomas was in New York City to run the 52nd edition of the New York City Marathon and raise funds for Empowerment Avenue. He sees running as a form of penance.

For Thomas, it is essential to do no harm, to give a voice to those who don’t have one, and to not disseminate propaganda. He considers himself a solutions journalist: the question is not who, but why. 

While incarcerated, Thomas didn’t think he was ever going to make it out, so he wanted to be a positive force in his family’s life. He heard Jay-Z’s voice in his head: “You will not lose, I will not lose, I will not lose.” He defined being a winner as becoming a writer, to do something for his family economically and change someone’s life on the streets. He was 42 when he found his love for journalism. 

Now 53, Thomas dreams of becoming a philanthropist, writing books, developing a movie script, and making it into a feature film to fund his programs, as well as future documentaries to empower incarcerated people. He’s determined to stay focused and disciplined. “My own fear of failing is what keeps me from doing so,” he said. 

Thomas’s biggest takeaway from his life experience thus far is to not  take anything personally, as he did while growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and it got him into a lot of trouble. He also believes that education, opportunities, and making incarcerated people feel human are essential to public safety. “If you just treat people like human beings, you change their hearts,” he said. “You change their lives.” 

*Professor David Alm, who interviewed Thomas, published a feature profile of him in Runner’s World shortly after this event.

Our Journalism Concentration & Minor

The Hunter College journalism program is offered as a concentration or a minor within the Department of Film & Media Studies. Its curriculum is built around production courses in journalism and analytical courses in media studies. Learn more about our course requirements.

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