Governor Gavin Newsom this week commuted the sentence of Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison and co-host of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Ear Hustle” podcast.
Thomas, 51, was serving a 55-and-a-half-year to life sentence for a second-degree murder conviction and related charges after he shot and killed one victim and injured another during a drug deal in 2000.
His clemency was among 18 commutations, 24 pardons and five reprieves announced by the governor on Thursday – the same day Newsom rejected the parole of Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy.
The governor said he “carefully considered and weighed the evidence” before making his decision on Thomas.
“This act of leniency for Mr. Thomas does not minimize or condone his conduct or the harm it has caused,” he said. “It recognizes the work he’s done since to transform himself.”
During his 21 years incarcerated, Thomas attended college and participated in self-help programs, the governor said. He has also won acclaim for his contributions to the San Quentin News – one of the country’s only inmate-produced publications – and for his work on the podcast, which is produced in part inside the prison.
“In prison, Mr. Thomas devoted himself to his rehabilitation,” Newsom wrote in his decision.
The California Supreme Court also recommended a pardon for Thomas, as is required in cases involving a conviction for more than one crime, the governor said.
The commutation gives Thomas the opportunity to appear immediately before the Parole Hearing Board, which will determine if he is suitable for parole. The parole board has already voted to recommend a pardon for Thomas, Newsom said.
Thomas’ parole eligibility date was September 2030, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records. A ministry spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for information on the new date.
The “Ear Hustle” podcast – so named for a jail term for eavesdropping – was one of two finalists for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Audio Reporting. The podcast is billed as the first to be created and produced in prison and features stories about the daily realities of life in San Quentin.
In 2018, then governor. Jerry Brown also commuted the sentence of Earlonne Woods, a San Quentin inmate who co-created the podcast with fellow inmate Antwan Williams and Bay Area artist Nigel Poor.
Thomas joined the podcast as a co-host in 2019 and continued to contribute to its coverage as a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the prison population.
“I lay down on my bunk, stared at the ceiling, and wanted to tell this story about Ear Hustle,” he wrote in a recent December 2020 story about the outbreak.
In a statement Friday, the podcast team described Thomas as “an important voice in the San Quentin community.”
“We often hear from listeners who are grateful for what he brings to episodes, and we encourage everyone to listen to his ‘Ear Hustle’ work and read his many essays,” they said. “While we don’t yet know when Rahsaan will be released from San Quentin, this news marks a concrete next step in this long process, and we couldn’t be happier for him.”
Thomas is also a Fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists, a contributing writer to the Marshall Project, and the co-founder of Prison Renaissance, a platform for incarcerated artists to connect with other artists in their field. In 2019, he co-hosted a discussion at San Quentin with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.