BROWNSVILLE, Brooklyn (PIX11) – When a Brooklyn mother heard her son was running marathons at San Quentin State Prison in California, she was a little stunned.
“When he was hanging 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, multiracial man with a Hispanic father living in Brownsville in the 1970s.
“He became a target because he was so beautiful,” said his mother.
Rahsaan Thomas is now a star in a new documentary from director Christine Yoo, 26.2 to Life, a play about the distance of a marathon versus a typical murder sentence, 25 to life.
The film reveals something else about the now 52-year-old Thomas that no one could ignore: he is smart.
“Rahsaan has always been an exceptional student,” said his mother. “Even when he was in Catholic school, the teachers wanted him to help the other kids with math.”
But the road hasn’t been smooth for Thomas, who won a scholarship to Lasalle Academy in Manhattan when he started high school. Something else happened that year that seriously affected his resume. His brother Aikeem Thompson picked up the story.
“We got 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 recalled that by then his brother was a “straight A student who wasn’t studying. He was interested in computers long before the internet.”
But Rahsaan Thomas’ mother recalled that after some students beat him up in Manhattan, “he started carrying a razor.”
Thomas later got into trouble in Nassau County when “a guy jumped on him,” his mother said. “Rahsaan shot him.”
After a stint in New York State Penitentiary, Thomas ventured to California with a friend. He eventually had two sons.
Then his path was changed by a life-changing event.
His mother said he went shopping with a woman and the dealers wanted to rob her. Thomas shot one of the men. He was convicted of murder and under California law enforcement statutes, which take into account criminal records and gun ownership, he ended up serving a 55-year life sentence at the age of 29.
“In San Quentin, Rahsaan reflected on his life and choices. He wanted to right his wrongs. He was always praying he would get out,” Aikeem Thompson said.
Thomas now stars prominently in Christine Yoo’s film, which premiered at the NYC DOC Festival in mid-November.
Aside from running the marathon, Thomas co-hosts the popular Ear Hustle podcast behind prison walls and is the editor of the San Quentin News. He also chairs a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Set in San Quenton State Prison, Yoo’s film features members of the 1000 Mile Club, a group of inmates training for an annual marathon. One of the first voices we hear in the film is Frank Ruona, the volunteer coach who “usually goes to jail every Friday,” Yoo explained.
Yoo said she often visited inmates before cameras started rolling before the pandemic.
“It took time to build trust and a relationship,” Yoo said.
The director finally got a remarkable approach by filming the inmates in their four by eight cells in a passionate project that took five and a half years to bring to screen. New York-based journalist Hella Winston was a producer and sometimes carried the boom during filming.
The prisoners’ training culminates in an annual marathon that includes a grueling 105 laps around a crowded concrete and gravel yard. Finishing the race will be a feat most people will never achieve in their lives — and give prisoners the opportunity to not be defined solely by their punishment.
Yoo said she wants to look at inmates’ daily routines as well as their education, essentially “what’s life like with a life sentence?” she said.
Rahsaan Thomas’ mother and brother are also interviewed in the film, which explores the emotional and physical changes the men went through in prison.
“To me, society doesn’t gain by storing prisoners forever,” said Rahsaan Thomas’ mother. “If you’re over 50 and behind bars for more than 20 years, the recidivism rate is almost zero.”
The film notes that there are some members of the 1000 Mile Club who have left prison.
And since the documentary was finished, there has been a big development in Thomas’ life.
After his sentence was commuted by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Thomas got his chance to go before parole decades earlier than he thought. He didn’t expect a good result the first time, but the board recommended that he be released in early 2023.
“At least 50 people came and spoke for him,” Thomas’ mother said of her son. “All ages and all skin colors. They offered him a place to stay; They offered him jobs.”
The Brooklyn-based mum told PIX11 News she was able to get Thomas’s two sons, now 31 and 28, through school, also buying them computers and sending them to summer camp.
The mother said she is proud of her eldest son for overcoming so much.
“Even if someone does a bad deed, nobody is all, one thing,” she said.
And she’s inspired by the way her son used his brain to transform his life.
“Smarter than his mama,” she said.
The virtual demonstration at DOC NYC is available until November 27th. Here’s how you can watch the movie.
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