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Life Inside

My Wild and Winding Path to a College Degree Behind Bars

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas was proud to finally earn his associate’s degree in San Quentin State Prison. But repeated COVID-19 lockdowns turned his graduation ceremony into a two-year ordeal.

An illustration shows a Black man next to a Black power symbol in a blue graduation cap and gown, holding an orange diploma cover, as paper cranes fly around him.

As a kid, I didn’t see the value of education. My mother sent my brother and me to Catholic school as a path out of our dangerous Brooklyn neighborhood, but I saw it as the place where bullies lay in wait for us kids wearing plaid uniform ties. I got good grades until high school, when I made fighting bullies my priority. The altercations escalated, leading me to transfer to different New York City schools before finishing in Detroit. I did not attend the graduation ceremony because my classmates were strangers.

When it came time to apply for college, I didn’t bother. My grades did not match my brains, and I lacked athleticism, so a scholarship was not happening. Plus, I did not know what I wanted to be. Without rich parents to foot the bill, going into student debt to find myself was out of the question. I needed an immediate income to get out of Brownsville, Brooklyn.

College did not seem like the answer for me, but I remember attending my mother’s graduation. This single Black woman had earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology, but that piece of paper did not translate into a six-figure income or a house in the suburbs. I didn’t realize that more funding went to filling prisons than sociological studies about the root causes of crime. I certainly didn’t expect to earn a double-life sentence for murder, or to graduate from college at San Quentin State Prison during a global pandemic.

Behind bars, I found a passion for writing that turned into a drive for education. However, I couldn’t follow that drive for over a decade. During my first 10 years of imprisonment, I was housed in prisons that mainly offered correspondence college courses. The books were often expensive, and they were not covered by financial aid or the schools. I made 19 cents an hour as a teacher’s assistant and a clerical worker, and had to spend my outside resources on food to supplement the small and often inedible meals the prison served.

In 2013, my security classification dropped to Level Two, and I was transferred to San Quentin, which has a college right on the grounds and free books, even for the correspondence courses available from two California community colleges. I added my name to the waiting list for Patten University’s Prison University Project, and in the meantime, I took courses with Coastline and Feather River community colleges.

Finally, in 2015, I was able to start at Patten. I dove into every writing course they had. Lessons I learned in English 101, Creative Writing and other classes advanced my skills and led to me writing for dozens of publications.

By January of 2020, I was one history course away from earning my associate’s degree. I worked hard, but in March, just as our finals were due, Patten staff stopped coming into the prison because of the COVID-19 epidemic. About a week later, the whole prison went on an indefinite lockdown. I sat in my cell wondering if I would survive this new, super-contagious virus.

I found that out in June 2020, when I contracted COVID-19. It gave me a headache, body aches, weakness and congestion that lasted for 10 days. Others fared worse — they had hospital trips and respirators. Twenty-nine people died at San Quentin, including a beloved sergeant. The deadliness of the virus underscored the need for continuing the lockdown — and it delayed my graduation.

Finally, in October 2020, I received a notice from Patten, which by then had become Mount Tamalpais College (MTC), the nation’s first independently operated and fully accredited prison liberal arts institution. We would finish the history class via correspondence. Using my top bunk as a desk, I completed the required work two months earlier than the December deadline. I waited for confirmation that I passed, but didn’t hear anything for more than six months.

When prison programming finally resumed in September 2021, I was able to talk to the MTC coordinators. I learned that my work had been lost, but then found. I passed my class and earned my associate’s degree, but I would have to wait for the graduation ceremony to hold my diploma in my hands.

The pages of the calendar turned to 2022, but there was still no graduation or diploma. Then, in April, MTC notified me that we would have the ceremony at the prison on June 24, and I could invite three visitors. I had skipped my graduation from Southeastern High School in Detroit because I started there mid-quarter senior year and did not feel a connection to the class. Plus, my family back in New York was too far away to attend. While I couldn’t invite my relatives to my college graduation because COVID-19 made prison lockdowns too common and unpredictable, I looked forward to celebrating with some of the men with whom I’d survived a murderous virus. Plus, Susan and Mandy, two dear friends who live in nearby Oakland, agreed to come.

Two months before the ceremony, San Quentin began its second quarantine lockdown of the year. The lockdown was lifted in time for our graduation, but my hopes were once again dashed when someone in my cell block tested positive. That meant more quarantine.

Luckily, three days before graduation, MTC notified us that graduates from our block could attend the ceremony. All each of us had to do was test negative for COVID-19.

At 7:45 a.m. on Friday, June 24, 2022, about 10 of us soon-to-be graduates were called for a rapid COVID-19 test. We lined up before a nurse, knowing that if any of us tested positive, our big day would end with quarantine in the administrative segregation building — the hole. To add insult to injury, the ad-seg building faces the chapel where the ceremony was being held. That meant we’d be watching guests attend the graduation through a bar-covered window.

Each person stuck a cotton swab up their nostrils and handed it to a nurse who tested the sample. I was about fifth in line and kept peeking at the box of test tubes. After I tested negative, I paced the flats — what we call the ground floor of the block.

At 8:30 we heard an encouraging announcement: “College graduates, report to the Mack Shack.” Gathering at this small CO station meant the ceremony was on! Our next stop was Chapel A to put on our black caps and gowns. At 9:30 we walked into Chapel B to the applause of fellow incarcerated people, prison staff, teachers, formerly incarcerated guests and our visitors.

Seeing my formerly incarcerated friends and visitors lifted my spirits. It was the first in-person visit I’d had in months, and it felt like a family reunion. And the ceremony, which included the graduating classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022, did not disappoint. Warden Ron Broomfield gave a surprising speech about George Washington Carver’s path to education. Then Tommy “Shakur” Ross, the former co-host of the “Uncuffed” podcast, who had just been released two months prior, appeared wearing a sharp black leather jacket and a matching ankle monitor. Ross, also the 2019 valedictorian, spoke to us about the challenges of being on a strict parole, the power of human connections — and his trips to a Giants baseball game and the first International Prison Radio conference in Norway.

Our valedictorian was John Levin, a 5-foot-4, bespectacled man in his late 50s. “I lost my speech, but have no fear. I wrote a speech for every occasion as a high school student,” he said, leafing through papers in a tan folder. “Let’s see, here’s the one about being the MVP of the NBA finals. Oh, here’s the one about winning a Nobel Peace Prize.”

As the crowd laughed with him, he found his speech about graduating from college while in prison. Things turned serious, bringing people to the brink of tears.

Then, finally, each graduate took the stage one-by-one to receive a piece of parchment rolled up tight with an official silver seal. Inside was an IOU note instead of an actual diploma, but my feelings of pride, joy and love were real. Watching my friends turn up in the small crowd, I smiled, grateful to be able to share the moment with people I love despite the prolonged violence of COVID-19.

Rahsaan Thomas Email is the co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast “Ear Hustle” and the co-founder of Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort. Thomas is also a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News.