BROWNSVILLE, Brooklyn (PIX11) — When a Brooklyn mom heard her son was running marathons at San Quentin State Prison in California, she was a bit stunned.
“When he hung out (in Brooklyn), he had two, left feet.,” Jacqueline Andrews recalled. “He didn’t run. He didn’t play basketball.”
Her son’s lack of athleticism wasn’t his only difficulty. He was a light-skinned, bi-racial male with a Hispanic father, living in Brownsville in the 1970’s.
“He became a target, because he was so fair,” his mother recounted.
Rahsaan Thomas is now a star in a new documentary from director Christine Yoo, “26.2 to Life,” the title a play on the distance of a marathon compared to a typical murder sentence, 25 to life.
The film makes clear something else about Thomas, now 52, that nobody could ignore: he’s smart.
“Rahsaan was always really an exceptional student,” his mother said. “Even when he was in Catholic school, the teachers wanted him to help the other kids with math.”
But the road did not run smoothly for Thomas, who received a scholarship to Lasalle Academy in Manhattan when he started high school. Something else happened that year that seriously affected the course of his life. His brother Aikeem Thompson picked up the story.
“We were being robbed, and I got shot in both legs,” Thompson told PIX11 News.
He was 11 years old when the incident happened. His older brother was 14.
Thompson remembered that before then, his brother was a “straight A student who didn’t study. He was into computers way before the Internet.”
But Rahsaan Thomas’ mother remembered that after some students beat him up in Manhattan, “He started carrying a razor.”
Thomas later got in trouble in Nassau County, when “some guy came at him,” his mom said. “Rahsaan shot him.”
After a stint in New York State prison, Thomas ventured to California with a girlfriend. He eventually had two sons.
Then, his path shifted with a life-altering event.
His mother said he went to buy marijuana with a woman and the dealers were going to rob her. Thomas shot one of the men dead. He was convicted of murder and, with California’s enhancement laws that consider prior convictions and weapons possession, he ended up, at age 29, with a sentence of 55 years to life.
“In San Quentin, Rahsaan was reflective on his life and his decisions. He wanted to right his wrongs. He always prayed that he would get out,” Aikeem Thompson said.
Thomas is now prominently featured in Christine Yoo’s film, which premiered at the NYC DOC festival in mid-November.
Aside from marathon running, Thomas co-hosts the popular “Ear Hustle” podcast from behind prison walls and edits the San Quentin News. He also runs a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and was a Pulitzer-prize nominee.
Yoo’s film goes inside San Quentin State Prison and profiles members of the 1000 Mile Club, a group of inmates who train for an annual marathon. One of the first voices we hear in the film is Frank Ruona, the volunteer coach who “generally goes into the prison every Friday,” Yoo explained.
Yoo said she went to visit the inmates a lot, before the cameras started rolling, pre-pandemic.
“It took time to build trust and rapport,” Yoo said.
The director ended up gaining remarkable access, filming the inmates inside their four-by-nine foot cells in a passion project that took five-and-a-half years to bring to the screen. New York-based journalist, Hella Winston, was a producer and sometimes carried the boom during filming.
The prisoners’ training culminates with an annual marathon that involves a grueling, 105 laps around a crowded yard made of concrete and gravel. Completing the race will be an achievement that most people never accomplish in their lifetimes–and give the prisoners an opportunity to not be solely defined by their sentence.
Yoo said she wanted to look at the inmates’ daily routines as well as their training, essentially “what does life with a life sentence look like in prison?” she said.
Rahsaan Thomas’ mother and brother are also interviewed in the film, which looks at the emotional and physical changes the men have undergone in prison.
“To me, society doesn’t win by warehousing inmates forever,” Rahsaan Thomas’ mother said. “Over age 50, with 20-plus years behind bars, the recidivism rate is almost nil.”
The film notes there are some members of the 1000 Mile Club who’ve left prison.
And since the documentary was completed, there’s been a major development in the life of Thomas.
After his sentence was commuted by California Governor Gavin Newsom, Thomas received the chance to go before the Parole Board decades earlier than he thought he would. He wasn’t expecting a good outcome the first time, but the board recommended he be released in early 2023.
“There were at least 50 people who came and spoke on his behalf,” Thomas’ mother said of her son. “All ages and all colors. They offered him a place to stay; they offered him jobs.”
The Brooklyn-based mom told PIX11 News she was able to put Thomas’ two sons, now 31 and 28, through school, also buying them computers and sending them to summer camp.
The mother said she’s proud of her oldest son for overcoming so much.
“Even if someone does a bad deed, no one is all, one thing,” she said.
And she’s inspired by the way her son used his brain to start turning his life around.
“Smarter than his mama,” she said.
The virtual screening at DOC NYC is available until Nov 27. How you can see the movie.