In 2016 I walked into San Quentin State prison to write narration for a podcast that did not end up happening. I had never been inside a prison before, and I had preconceptions that turned out to be wrong. I expected to meet a bunch of hustlers but instead met a bunch of intellectual, pleasant, polite folk, who, except for the fact they were all dressed alike, and could not leave with me when I left, could have been anyone, anywhere. After leaving that day, I felt small and ashamed for having pre-judged people I had never thought anything much about and examined my prejudices. One of the men I met and spoke to that day, told me about a program he had founded, No More Tears SQ. I discovered I could volunteer with the program and began to.
As I began to spend more time in the prison, the men I got to know, I realized the only real concept I have of prison and the people in them came from media images. I realized that if I, fairly well-travelled, well read, and open was this off, many others must have the same impression. Most of the films and entertainment we see set in prison have two different groups of incarcerated people: the wrongfully convicted, and the psychotic serial killers. I have come to know of a third group which makes up the largest percent of the over 2 million incarcerated population in America; those who have actually done something, have changed, and are stuck in prison, many for the rest of their lives. I have learned firsthand that there are many special, gifted people incarcerated in this country. We could all learn the lessons I have gleaned from hanging around them: I have learned what it is to be patient. I have learned what it is to be hopeful. I have had the privilege of seeing how men care about and take care of each other. And they have truly impressive organizational skills. It’s not easy for two men to share a 4 ½’ by 10’ cell with a bunk bed, a toilet, and a tiny sink taking up most of the space; the men I have met are the cleanest and neatest people I know. The most important thing I have learned and continue to understand on a deeper level, the more time I spend around them, is what true accountability and genuine remorse is.
Lonnie Morris who is in his 44th year of serving a life sentence, began No More Tears SQ over twenty years ago. Lonnie felt compelled to help the men alongside him in prison recognize what violence is so that they do not leave and keep making the same mistakes ending back inside. Maybe because he and the other incarcerated facilitators use their own experiences as the study examples and textbook, his program is successful. When we first met, over 500 men had gone through the program, been released, and not one had returned to prison. That’s an impressive statistic. The California parole board now recognizes the program and takes time off for those attending. Observing those in the classes understand what making mistakes means is inspiring. The lessons humanize the victims to the perpetrators who hurt them, but it also allows them to see themselves as human too. One component of the program is the Healing Circle which embodies restorative justice values allowing those who have been wronged the opportunity to share their experience. Forgiveness does not always occur, but some modicum of healing always seems to have been reached by the end of the process because two entities better understand each other. Once you do that, many of the men have told me, they will never willfully hurt someone again. I often think about how much safer our communities would be if we had groups of these men I have seen counseling and healing and teaching each other right from wrong, living amongst us.
My play “Lockdown” had its NYC world premiere Off Broadway in spring 2019, it was inspired by Lonnie Morris, and the men I had met. I wanted to write an accurate account and share with others on the outside what I had come to know. One of the greatest moments of my life was bringing a videotaped disc of the play into the prison, with permission, to watch with those who had generously told me their stories and answered many questions. Earlonne Woods of the famed Ear Hustle podcast, was still incarcerated. He gave me prison slang vocabulary lessons. Everyone there had contributed.
About twenty men and I, huddled around a mid-sized computer screen, not connected to the internet. Some had never seen a play before. I experienced more nerves than I have felt when the New York Times reviewer comes to review my plays. That day, their opinion was the only one that has ever mattered, because I realized as we watched, that I had wanted to honor them with the play and share their integrity with the world. I wanted to contribute towards changing their image. As they watched they were mostly quiet and intently focused. I could not read their reaction. When the play ended, the men stood up and gave the computer screen a standing ovation. We had a great robust discussion about the play and its themes of redemption, parole hearings, youthful and long-term incarceration and more. Some told me they had cried. Others said they wished their families could see the play. They told me that they felt I had seen them and really listened. I was surprised by this. But they explained that most people don’t spend the time I had by now with them, and usually end up writing about them superficially, with judgment, prejudice, or a lack of respect.
I do not feel it’s my place to tell the stories of the incarcerated. Although, I have certainly spent good time alongside them. Their lived experience is one that should be reserved for them to be able to tell themselves. My play was clearly written from my own point of view. However, I feel it helps to open the door to show how much there is and how many equipped people there are to tell you about it. I am satisfied to be helping several formerly incarcerated folks tell their own stories, whether through introductions or by collaborating.
I am very excited about a book I have been co-writing for the last year, the memoirs of trafficking survivor, Sara Kruzan. At age 11 she was targeted and groomed by a local trafficker near her home in California. At 13, she was working as a prostitute. At 16, she shot and killed him, was tried as an adult, and sentenced to life without parole. Human Rights Watch and a global campaign to free her was successful. A law designed to protect other kids from meeting the same fate is named after her, “Sara’s Law.” It is in the hands of legislators now. The book “I Cried To Dream Again” is due out in April 2022, by Knopf/Random House. I feel I’ve gotten the opportunity to help shed a light on a more common situation than most of us think.
My Dad was an Ambassador from Liberia, West Africa, and my mother was born in Brazil. Although I was born in New York, I grew up in the different countries where my dad worked. I learned to be proud that my dad represented Liberia wherever we were. I believe it’s when I first learned the importance of representation. Why what we say, and everything we do matters. It has become a responsibility for me to try to help the voices and stories of the incarcerated population find their way to the general public so that people can begin to think of that community as the individuals they are. When we see someone different from us as ourselves, it becomes less easy to judge, dismiss, forget and mistreat them. That is a lesson I have learned by observing the men in the No More Tears workshops. I have now had the opportunity to visit other prisons and meet other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The ability this population has to reach deep inside themselves to locate resilience, with ingenuity, hope, and a sense of humor should inspire us all.
Cori Thomas is a playwright whose works include When January Feels like summer, Lockdown, My Secret Language of Wishes, Pa’s Hat and more.