January 9, 2015

Literature on Lockdown: I Write From a Cell

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Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Rahsaan Thomas.

I was sentenced to 55-years-to-life back in July of 2003 for 2nd degree murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter and gun-use enhancements. My speech is the only part of me that is still free.

Incarceration has forced a need to write. It started with letters to loved ones. Next, I needed to write my own habeas appeal. After the courts jerked me, I found a need to help others and tell my side of the story so others won’t follow this path to hell. Now I love writing.

Writing is the one thing I can do from a cell that can make a huge difference. I am not scheduled to go home anytime soon. By the time I do, I will have missed my sons’ whole entire adult life after already missing his childhood. By then, the woman who loves me will moved on and there won’t be nothing to return to except to meet any grandkids my sons may have by then. Writing makes my circumstances worth something more than the circumstances of being a Lifer.

Two prisons ago, I was a law library clerk and I have been using the skills learned there to help others get free. The Federal courts’ one-year AEDPA deadline to file a habeas-appeal came and went before I was able to acquire enough skill to submit the best writ I could. Conditions of lockdowns, outdated books, no borrowing book policies, one law library for two full prison yards and other obstacles made mastering law in a year impossible. Therefore, although I can prove my case is a stack of lies, I lost all my appeals. However, I have been getting successful results for others with the lessons learned at my expense. Therefore, I write to fight for those who can’t read or write well enough themselves.

Since then, I have become the Sports Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper. My job as Sports Editor is much bigger than just keeping track of stats for the newspaper, it’s about giving prisoners a chance to make the papers for something positive. As I was quoted in the LA Times saying, “The last time I made the newspapers, somebody got shot.” I love having this chance to help others make the news for their positive accomplishments, instead of only violent acts.

Now I write to get people to see why some of us have done horrible things. I write to get people to see the changes that could be made that would make the world a better place for all of us. I write to showcase those of us who have made those changes. I write to combat hate with knowledge in an effort to breed understanding. I write to help others get the justice they deserve. I have co-written and published a book of short stories called Uncaged Stories through Lulu.com – each of my tales are focused on waking up youngsters, so they don’t end up my cellmates. I write because it’s the most powerful weapon I have that can effectively hamper oppression.

I am doing everything I can to become a better writer at San Quentin State Prison. I am a member of the Journalism Guild. I am in Creative Writing and Poetry classes. I have gotten B’s in Communication and Business Management at Coastline Community College. I have taken Sociology and English at Feather River. The skills are starting to match the passion.

So from prison I’ll keep writing until there are no more words or there are no problems to write about.

Rahsaan ThomasRahsaan Thomas is currently serving 55-to-life for second-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from stopping a robbery. He is using his time positively. He is the Sports Editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild. He is also a member of the William James Prison Arts Project Creative Writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His short story from last year called “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology, Brothers in Pen: Stories from the Annual Public Reading at San Quentin. Levon “Rasta Von” James, a director from Rochester, NY, is currently at work turning “One Bad Apple” into a short film.

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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