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Rahsaan Thomas

Writer + Producer

Empowering incarcerated people by inviting leaders in media and culture to witness their genius.

Headshot of Rahsaan Thomas

As a young teen, Rahsaan “New York” Thomas loved to make things, like trying to program video games on his Commodore 64 computer. But by 17, his circumstances had gotten in the way of his passions: He grieved his father’s murder, saw his little brother shot, and was jumped himself. He responded with violence, which landed him in prison and a sentence of 55 years-to-life. Transferred to San Quentin, he decided to turn his life around, joining self-help groups and taking college classes. He rediscovered his passion for creating, becoming a writer for the San Quentin News and The Marshall Project; the director of two documentary films; and the co-host of Ear Hustle, a podcast nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Paroled in 2023, Thomas now leads Empowerment Avenue, a nonprofit that connects incarcerated people to creative opportunities. With its help, incarcerated people have been published in The New York Times, shown work in galleries, and earned a good income in circumstances where that is rarely possible. This work not only amplifies incarcerated voices, it challenges society’s assumptions about people in prison.

In San Quentin, Thomas and several friends made a short film called Friendly Signs. After he was paroled, it premiered at San Francisco DocFest—but most of those involved were back at San Quentin, unable to attend. “Neither the main character, Tommy Wickerd, or Brian Asey, our director of photography, could be there,” he says. 

With the support of the Emerson Collective Fellowship, Thomas aims to organize three events at San Quentin, ensuring the creative community inside the prison gets exposure and access to professionals and opportunities on the outside: The San Quentin Art Expo will bring in industry leaders, to show the talent that exists in the facility. The San Quentin Film Festival will bring judges from Tribeca and Sundance film festivals to see shorts and hear pitches. And the Restoring Media Symposium will bring in reporters, editors, and publishers to talk about broadening the stories journalists tell about the carceral system. These events will build a pipeline to job opportunities while dispelling myths about the prison population—demonstrating all they have to contribute.

More about The Emerson Collective Fellowship.

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