“Press 5 to Accept This Call”: On Creating Connection Across Prison Walls
By Rahsaan “New York” Thomas and Alexandra Watson
During the COVID shelter-in-cell lockdown at San Quentin State Prison in November of 2020, I was laying on the top bunk inside of cell 5 North 89, reading the latest issue of Poets & Writers magazine. On the cover was a portrait of Rumaan Alam, a bald brother wearing hipster glasses and a blue suit. In the table of contents, I noticed the heading, “Abundance And Joy: Camille T. Dungy in Conversation With Five Black Editors on the Power and Potential of Indie Publishing.” I glanced through the mag, until I came upon the spread that featured the editors’ pictures. In the article, Heather Buchanan, editor of Aquarius Press, said she was “entrenched in a twenty-year war to get the works of people of color out into the world.” Mensah Demary, executive editor of Catapult, talked about being an “advocate for a developing and evolving literature and its community.” The other editors, Parneshia Jones, director of the Northwestern University Press, and Kwame Dawes, editor of American Life in Poetry, were on the same page—uplifting underrepresented voices. I noticed a pattern: none named whether the underrepresented voices included people in prison. Alexandra Watson, Executive Editor of Apogee Journal, talked about her writing workshops in Brooklyn, but never mentioned holding a workshop at the Brooklyn House of Detention or Riker’s Island.
I wrote five letters, one to each editor, challenging them to include incarcerated writers in their publications, and telling them about the organization I founded, Empowerment Avenue. Empowerment Avenue acts as a bridge to overcoming barriers inherent in working with people behind bars. I asked Adrienne, the Empowerment Avenue volunteer I’m paired with, to either scan and email the letters on my behalf, or provide physical addresses to write to. I immediately heard back via email from Mensah Demary of Catapult, who asked if I wanted to pitch a story.
A few days later, I received a small pile of mail. Scanning through the letters, I saw the familiar paper printout folded neatly in half and held in place by tape that read, “You have received a JPay letter, the fastest way to get mail,” across the top. I slowly peeled the scotch tape back. The paper tore, but didn’t disturb the text. I read the sender’s name and saw the letter was from Alexandra Watson.
When I received the email with the subject line “Reaching out on behalf of Rahsaan Thomas,” the name sounded familiar. Of all the notable writers and artists we’ve published in Apogee, Rahsaan had me the most starstruck—it meant a lot that Apogee’s mission had reached the inside of San Quentin’s walls.
I responded, eager to connect: “Is this by any chance Rahsaan (New York) Thomas from Ear Hustle? I ask because I am a big fan of the podcast. In any case, Rahsaan is welcome to send me his submission directly by snail mail.” I shared my address.
Eight minutes later, I sent another email: “Also, perhaps we can start a dialogue about doing some kind of special issue or folio with incarcerated writers, as our friends at Nat Brut did in their most recent issue. I think it’s something our editors would be really interested in, especially if we have collaborative partners who are already working with incarcerated writers.” When I look at this exchange, I remember the gears turning. Why stop at publishing one incarcerated writer when we could dedicate a whole issue to incarcerated writers?
When I co-founded Apogee in 2012, our mission was small. We wanted to give a voice to marginalized writers in our own community of students in Columbia’s graduate writing program. Over the years, this mission grew and blossomed, and evolved to serve writers from all over New York City, then the U.S., then the world—still with the core of amplifying those who’ve been historically excluded. We started running free and low-cost community writing workshops for adults and in after-school programs, in addition to publishing our magazine.
But we had never accepted work from incarcerated writers—despite the fact that they are the most excluded from the literary industry and our society. A special issue felt like the natural extension of what we did. I spoke to Emily Nonko, a lead volunteer for Empowerment Avenue, over the phone, who told me to look out for calls from Texas. Even though Rahsaan’s facility is in California, all Global Tel Link calls are routed through this number. I missed a few calls, while I was in Zoom classes or meetings.
A few weeks later, I finally picked up at the right time.
His voice was familiar. So was the message I heard when I picked up: “This is a prepaid call from…(in his voice) Rahsaan Thomas. An inmate at San Quentin State Prison. This call will be monitored and recorded. Press 5 to accept this call. Thank you for using Global Tel Link.” I remembered all my frustration in trying to communicate with my brother during his stints in jail, how irritated I got with the tone of that recorded message; the prison telecom industry with its Hallmark cheer felt like a dystopian mockery, exploiting our need to connect.
One thing about phone calls with folks who are incarcerated—there’s not much time for small talk. Rahsaan and I immediately began planning for an issue of Apogee dedicated to incarcerated writers. We discussed possible challenges—edits getting lost in the mail, contributors getting moved to new facilities, mailing copies of the issue to incarcerated readers. We resolved to curate an excellent issue—one that would uphold the high standards Apogee has set for publishing work—collaborating with writers and volunteers to edit pieces, and fundraising to pay contributors and publish print issues.
“Why is it that you want to do this?” Rahsaan asked near the end of our second call. I gave him some version of the Apogee elevator pitch: our mission is to amplify marginalized voices, and who is more marginalized than the incarcerated?
“But why do you think you’re right for this project?”
He was right to check me. The trust it takes to care for, to edit, to curate, to honor writers’ and artists’ work, must be earned. The imperative to elevate the voices of the incarcerated demands rigorous attention and real commitment.
Uplifting the voices of incarcerated writers had been a mission of mine ever since a judge sentenced me to 55 years to life in prison back in 2003. I’m incarcerated for killing a man and seriously wounding another, leaving the victim’s family and my own in shambles. The thought of dying in prison, a convicted murderer and loser known to society only by my last mugshot, horrified me. I wanted to do something so good, so powerful, that it would honor the life I took and somehow make my sons and mother proud, a retired chief of the NYC Department of Corrections, in spite of my probably never leaving prison. I decided to become a writer because even behind bars, our voices are still free. I envisioned making the New York Times Best Seller List with a memoir that people from my hood would read that would cause them to drop their guns.
While I haven’t made the New York Times Best Seller List yet, I am the co-host and co-producer of Ear Hustle, a podcast that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Plus, during the lockdown, my writing career started to thrive because of a pilot program I co-created with the outside help of Brooklyn-based freelance writer Emily Nonko, which launched that June, called Empowerment Avenue.
Empowerment Avenue pairs us with writers in society. The “free” writers transcribe our handwritten stories into a digital format to email, pitch, and get us published and paid by major publications. Under the non-profit Prison Renaissance, our pilot program was going well for the initial 30 writers, but in order to make this program a success for thousands of incarcerated writers across the nation, we would need hundreds of editors. Not as an act of charity either, but as a key to their own success and in the interest of telling better stories that could net better responses from society on social justice issues. Every proposal, grant request, and byline contains drops of my blood, sweat, and tears.
I heard Alexandra’s voice for the first time through a receiver attached by a steel cable to an old-school phone. She spoke to me like an old friend, and I immediately felt comfortable talking with her. Still, I confronted her during our first conversation.
“Why do you want to do an issue with a bunch of people who harmed society?”
“I don’t view people as just their crimes…”
“That’s cool, but how did you get interested in mass incarceration?” I was checking to see if she had a savior complex.
“I have a brother who’s in jail right now.”
I told Rahsaan about my brother’s experience with the carceral system, how every time he went to jail it felt like a part of me was in there with him. How when I visited, I had to turn out my nephew’s tiny pockets for the guards to inspect and how there was a two-second time limit on how long my brother could hold his son. How important it felt to exchange letters and books.
In March, my brother was arrested again, this time by Rochester police, while in the midst of a months-long manic episode. It’s not lost on me that the Rochester police are the same police force that killed Daniel Prude while he was having a psychotic episode and that pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl. (Daniel Prude looked a little like my brother—similar shaped head. His sibling was the one who called 911 that night).
Other than my family members, Rahsaan was one of the first people I told about my brother. I told him how afraid I was about how, with a bright light turned on 24/7, his psychosis would worsen in solitary confinement. How in the past, jail administrators had involuntarily dosed him with an antipsychotic that he was allergic to, and he ended up in the emergency room fighting for his life. Rahsaan told me to write to the jail administration, to tell them about his allergies and psychosis. I got a response, and shortly after, psychiatrists began visiting my brother.
Her answer surprised me. I had thought her someone who didn’t have a clue about what people in prison are really like. We bonded in that space where there’s no stigma.
As if I was an extension of her brother, she had no qualms about working directly with me. But she didn’t have a business address, and didn’t necessarily want dozens of men in prison writing her, so all correspondence from other people behind bars would have to come through me or an Empowerment Avenue volunteer.
“So you should call the jail and put them on notice that your brother has mental health issues,” I advised her.
“This call and your phone number will be monitored and recorded,” interrupted a pre-recorded voice.
She knows that already.
“Thank you, that’s good advice,” she said.
“Also, what about doing a press release to announce our issue launch? I could send you dozens of press contacts.”
“Okay, we’ll talk about that when—”
“You have 60 seconds remaining,” broke in the pre-recorded computer voice on cue.
I sighed, pissed that these huge conversations had to fit in 15-minute time limits.
After each automated disconnection, we completed a lot of our sentences over correspondence. During our talks, she told me Apogee was put together by volunteers, and they would have to raise the money to pay all the contributors a fair wage. I told her I could help with that and opened up the door to all the funders I knew of that helped keep San Quentin News running. All we needed was about $12,000.
I started to feel uncomfortable about opening up all my connections with a woman I never met in person and blurted out, “We should talk once a week because I’m making all these major plans, and I don’t know you.”
“I have to tell you something,” she said the next time we talked.
“Okay, what’s up.”
“I launched a fundraiser on Facebook, but someone hacked my page and locked me out of my own account.”
Russians? I thought. Bullshit maybe? No, she wouldn’t. Whatever was going on, someone was using her name, Apogee’s name, to tell her connections and some of mine, God knows what. I didn’t believe she would pull a fast one like that.
“But, I have good news too. I’m going to be out in California from June 17-July 6 for a writing residency in Sonoma and would like to visit if there’s an opportunity.”
Standing inside the doorless phone booth, a smile formed, then panic replaced my grin as I realized that I’m in a California prison. It takes weeks to get cleared to visit, and it was already June 6. Meeting her in person would do a lot to build trust. But it would take an act of God.
Step 1, I sign a visit form and mail it to her. Step 2, she fills it out and sends it to the visiting department for processing. Step 3, the prison sends me a notice that she’s approved.
We formed a plan: I would mail her a form that night, and she would express mail it back to San Quentin. But there was another catch: she needed to make an appointment in advance on a Saturday morning at exactly 8 a.m., and hope for an appointment for a two-hour visit on Sunday, eight days later. We needed two miracles, visiting approval by June 25 and a visiting appointment for July 4. For a time slot, she was competing against wives and girlfriends with years of experience snagging 1 of 42 slots each week—42 slots for a population of about 1,500 using the same visiting room.
That same day, I arrived back at my cell to find two visiting approvals. I tore open the folded sheets to see the names. Neither was Alexandra. I immediately looked at the dates on the forms and gauged that it took 16 days for them to get processed. I didn’t have 16 days—that would be July 2, too late to get an appointment for July 4th. We needed an intervention.
I know the sergeant from doing the Ear Hustle story, “Us and Them.” He’s the one who was choking on a piece of food when three incarcerated men saved his life. But I also remembered when my younger brother Aikeem flew out to California with his girlfriend and his son, my 16-year-old nephew, Aikeem Jr., to visit me. Aikeem Sr. walked into the visiting room alone because Little Aikeem had his passport, a copy of his birth certificate, and his father with him, but he had left his original birth certificate—a requirement for minors—in NYC. The only one who could relax a visiting rule was the sergeant. His answer had been a firm no.
I’d been incarcerated Little Aikeem’s whole life and had never met him in person. While his father visited me that weekend, Little Aikeem sat in a hotel room. It broke my heart that my crimes subjected him to such emotional cruelty.
As the visiting room sergeant passed, the words, excuse me sir, got stuck on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t find the courage to risk hearing him smash my heart again. Alexandra accepted my call, and I told her about the sergeant, asking that she do what I couldn’t: call and seek his help.
By Thursday, July 1, I still hadn’t received any visiting approval confirmation. I walked by the 12 phone booths, and trooped up the five flights of steps to the fifth tier, accepting defeat. The visit wasn’t happening.
By the time I got to California, I still hadn’t gotten approval, and I started to come to terms with the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it to visit San Quentin. While a part of me felt disappointed we wouldn’t get this chance to fortify our creative collaboration and friendship, another part of me felt relieved—I knew what it felt like to be inside jails and max-security psychiatric facilities visiting my brother, and I imagined prison to be ten times scarier.
On Thursday, July 1, I went to the office on the residency grounds to check my email for the first time in several days. “You’re scheduled for an in-person visit at 7:30a.m. on July 4,” read the email from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. I felt excited, disbelieving, and nervous. I imagined an impenetrable fortress. I flashed back to the pat downs while visiting my brother, hands always seeming to linger too long.
The next day, on my way from working on the Ear Hustle podcast, I went to the bank of phones and called Alexandra. She answered, “Did you get my JPay letter?”
“I’m approved to visit you, and we have an appointment for 7:30 a.m. Sunday.” A smile passed the edges of my face.
“I thought it was a wrap.”
“No, I just need your location.”
“I live in 5 North Block, cell 89.”
We talked until that rude pre-recorded message warned that we had 60 seconds and eventually cut us off. But I was looking forward to talking for two whole hours.
Saturday evening I went to the yard to play basketball on an intramural league team. We suit up in jerseys, seeking to relive organized ball days that I never actually had until prison. As the oldest man on the team, at 50, I played a few minutes, just enough to get sweaty, and spent most the game on the bench, from where I watched my team turnover a two-point lead with one minute to go into a two-point loss at the buzzer. As the game ended, an alarm blared.
From the long wooden bench, I watched an ambulance drive down a walkway along the wall boxing the yard in. Just a few minutes later, a red ambulance with fire department markings and the sun reflecting off its chrome side-view mirrors followed, led by a white jeep. As the setting sun softened the sky to an evening blue, I wondered what happened, where did it happen, and would it mean a lockdown.
“Everyone except North Block, return to your unit. North Block, stay on the yard,” an officer spat over the PA system.
Whatever happened, happened in my cell unit, and I feared the worst. Several incarcerated hospital workers shuffled onto the yard with news.
“Somebody died in North Block,” a brother wearing a state blue shirt with FMH printed on the back told me.
I froze, worried about who died, how they died, and the lockdown that would cancel all visits. I thought about whether he died of COVID, how horrible it must be to die in prison, surrounded by strangers, but mostly selfish thoughts of a lost visiting opportunity dominated.
“What happened in here?” I asked my cellie, Ponytail Mike, through the bars while waiting for a guard to unlock the cell.
“A 71-year-old man fell out and died on the second tier,” he said.
It sounded like natural causes, so I had a chance, but an investigation to figure that out could still cause a short lockdown, long enough to torpedo my plans. The clacking of gates unlocking snapped my thoughts to the present problem—I stank.
I went to the metal toilet/sink combination at the back of the cell, pulled a string hanging from the far end of my top bunk, and wrapped it around a towel rack on the opposite wall. Then I folded a sheet over the line to make a curtain blocking my body from the stomach down. I put on my TV while my cellie on the lower bunk watched his set, which faced the back of the cell and me. As I stripped behind the curtain under the dim glow coming from our screens, I ignored the discomforting lack of privacy prison forces you to tolerate. Next, I stripped out of sweat shorts and a Nike Dri-FIT T-shirt, and sat on the toilet.
Taking my plastic BPA-free cup filled with hot water, I “showered.”
Once clean, I went to sleep more worried about missing out on the visit than the death of a human being, and feeling ashamed about that.
I only had about ten minutes to spare. If I made a wrong turn, I’d be late, and lose my spot. I kept catching myself going over the speed limit, thinking, if I get pulled over, it’s over!
I found the exit and drove into a little seaside town with quaint houses and “drive slow—kids live here” signs. The entrance to the prison was on a residential street. I recognized a fortress-like quality but was surprised to find how close to the residential community it was, and also shocked by how cold it was. I still hadn’t gotten used to the micro-climates in the Bay.
A long line of people of all ages and colors waited in a packed hallway area. Some friendly people told me to get in a shorter line to show my vaccine record. It was about 7:20 now, and my appointment was at 7:30. They had already called the 7:15 appointments to line up.
While in line, I started talking with a middle-aged blonde woman. I told her it was my first time here. She looked me over and approved my outfit—a black long-sleeved shirt I had bought from a thrift store the day before, with a black jumpsuit over it. I had learned that though I brought clothes that were the right colors, I could still be denied a visit if my clothes weren’t modest enough.
I made it in time for the 7:30 appointments, and I wasn’t patted down while going through security. I kept looking around trying to figure out where to go next. Once I was sent through the door to outside, I was confused. In county jail, everything is in one building—it seemed strange to me that they even let me go outside where there was an open path to the parking lot, after going through security. (Later, a friend Rahsaan introduced me to, Peter Stern, would remind me that they have guards stationed on top of towers looking down at the whole complex, in case anyone tried to pull something.) I followed a woman and her son. The woman was cheerful; she was going to visit her older son. I wondered whether this was her usual disposition or whether she put on the cheerfulness for her children.
As I was going by the visitation building, I saw someone looking out the window. I heard his laugh and recognized it as Rahsaan’s.
I awoke to jingling keys and light peeking in from large windows lining a wall 30 feet of air across from my cell. The panes are so dirty you can only see silhouettes of birds flying past, faint like my odds at getting a visit.
Not wanting to get my hopes up, I pushed visiting to the back of my mind and got up to prepare for breakfast. As I brushed my teeth, I heard the announcement: “The following have 7:30 visits: Thomas Cell 5-89.” My grin filled the cage.
I was the first to reach the visiting room for 7:30 visits, but the C.O.s weren’t ready to let us in. As I waited outside behind a yellow line painted on the ground 40 feet from a door with a gate made of bars, several of my friends showed up. They work with me in the media center and often talked about their girlfriends that visited every week.
Around 7:30 am, we were pat-frisked one at a time, then admitted to the visiting area, a room filled with preschool tables and chairs on the far side. A raised podium sat in the center of the room, across from the guest bathrooms, with two C.O.s supervising. I handed one my ID and picked the seat closest to the vending machines in an adjacent hallway. No visitors were there yet. I chatted with my friends to pass the time. Two women walked past a window on the outside of the visiting room, which told me the visitors were coming through. A few minutes later, the two women entered the space. Thanh introduced me to his wifey, Lupe, and their daughter. Due to COVID social distancing rules, there were only 12 of us there for visiting, when normally, that place would be packed. Pretty soon, almost everyone was seated with their visitor while I stood wondering if she’d changed her mind, got sent back for wearing the wrong attire, or some other mishap. Wondering what was taking so long, I peeked out the window right into the eyes of a lady wearing a black mask and all black clothing. I jumped back, feeling uneasy about being caught seemingly staring at somebody’s visitor, and took a seat.
A few minutes later, the lady in black walked into the room, and headed towards me.
I felt relieved, knowing I had made it! Just through the two heavy metal doors and past the depleted vending machines. Rahsaan was the first person I saw. He was tall and thin. I wasn’t sure it was him, with the mask on, so I called his name. We had a quick hug then sat down, and kept our masks on.
I was surprised to find that the visiting room had windows and fresh air. That was a nice change from previous visiting rooms I had been in, which were usually drab, with fluorescent lighting and without fresh air.
A little scattered from the sleeplessness, I started off by telling him about my strange writing residency which had made me feel haunted over the past few days. I actually felt relieved to be here; my fear quieted for the moment. He told me about the incident the previous night, where someone on his block had died, which could have led to a lockdown.
We began talking about our vision for Inside Out. Rahsaan is deeply intellectual. He thinks constantly about social justice. He told me the character in his short story, which I’d been editing, was based on Angela Davis. I promised him another round of edits. He thanked me for giving more than just positive feedback, for challenging him.
We talked about fiction and narrative structure—suspension, arc, sensory description. And poetry! The tension created by a line break.
We talked about his childhood. He told me about being bullied as a kid back in Brooklyn, and about coming to know that the police were not a reliable source of help. We talked about the need to deeply examine how we create a safer world for everyone. We found some common threads in our experiences, both being multiracial and moving between private and public schools.
But when he asked, “Who are you?” I panicked. I didn’t know if I knew the answer to that question. I recited my professional qualifications: writer, teacher, editor. But that wasn’t what Rahsaan was asking. I appreciate that Rahsaan was asking something different, not for me to define myself by what I do, but by my story, experience, character and values. Answering “Who are you?” with honesty requires trust. Meeting Rahsaan in person helped build that trust.
Visits for someone in prison are the closest thing to being released for a few hours. With my whole family living far away and no wife or girlfriend, I don’t go on visits weekly. I go monthly at best. I wanted that visit to feel human, and make major plans like most people do, face-to-face.
“Do you want something to eat?” she asked.
“Yeah, but we can get that later. The line is long now and I don’t want to waste our time on lines.”
We talked effortlessly, about Apogee, about her brother, about growing up in New York.
About an hour into our visit, I felt the nagging urge to piss. I decided to hold it, so as not to miss a minute. She went to the vending machine and got what little they had—sodas and candy bars for us to eat, which provided an opportunity to lower our masks.
She told me about her crazy adventures in Sonoma at the writer’s residency. We discovered we had favorite musical artists in common, like Kehlani.
I peeked at the clock and saw we had 15 minutes to go, but I couldn’t hold it any more—I had to go to the bathroom. I excused myself and handled my business at warp speed, returning in less than five minutes.
We talked about next steps with Apogee and about my potentially coming home in time for a launch event.
“Time’s up. Visiting is over,” said a CO from the podium.
I stood and thanked her for coming. We embraced. After releasing her from the hug, she just stood there. The visit was officially over and I didn’t know why she stayed there looking at me with sad eyes. Not knowing what to do, I hugged her again and she stood there again. I waved and made my way towards the scanner machine that would X-ray my body for contraband. She lingered for another moment, then waved and headed out the opposite end of the room.
That visit was my second contact visit since they’d resumed in-person visiting in May. I felt like I made a friend beyond the project.
I went on with my work for Inside Out, running fundraising campaigns, applying for grants, reading and commenting on stories and essays about what it’s been like surviving COVID-19 under true lockdown, the apocalyptic conditions inside. Artists sent me copies or originals of their incredible work, and I was amazed by the trust they put in me to care for it.
I sometimes felt stuck and helpless in the face of this enormous system and its legacy. I worried that I was not the kind of person who makes big changes. I pressed 5 to accept Rahsaan’s calls. I know that fighting for individuals’ decarceration will not tear down the whole system. I know that the $10 calls enrich a prison telecom industry that monetizes our contact.
But I also know that the alternative is ignoring, forgetting, relegating people and their problems to the darkest corners of our society. I know isolation is deadly and connection means something. I know that in order to imagine a future beyond jails and prisons, we need to work to integrate reconciliation and healing into our everyday lives.
Hours later, I still needed to know why she’d seemed like she didn’t want to leave. I went to the collect call phone booths that evening on the way to chow. She answered and accepted the charges. After the preliminary small talk, I asked, “Why did you wait around after the visit, were you waiting for something?”
“The ending of our visit felt unnatural,” she said. “Like we were mid-sentence. Like we had more to say, and it felt like it wasn’t the right time or moment for it to be over. I guess I kind of forgot where we were.”
Her response sparked thoughts about how a system that sentenced me to serve so much time rationed it back out to me in stingy intervals. Our two hours together made more precious by its exclusivity. Our project made more urgent by its obstacles, its necessity, and its potential impact.