Newsom grants clemency to San Quentin inmate, podcast host Rahsaan Thomas

Filmmaker Ken Burns talks with Rahsaan Thomas at San Quentin.
In July 2019, filmmaker Ken Burns, right, talks with inmate Rahsaan Thomas at San Quentin State Prison.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week commuted the sentence of Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, a San Quentin State Prison inmate and co-host of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Ear Hustle” podcast.

Thomas, 51, has been serving a 55½-years-to-life sentence for a second-degree murder conviction and related charges after he fatally shot one person and injured another during a 2000 drug deal.

His clemency was among 18 commutations, 24 pardons and five reprieves announced by the governor on Thursday — the same day Newsom rejected parole for Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.


The governor said he “carefully considered and weighed the evidence” before making his decision about Thomas.

“This act of clemency for Mr. Thomas does not minimize or forgive his conduct or the harm it caused,” Newsom said. “It does recognize the work he has done since to transform himself.”

During his 21 years of incarceration, Thomas completed college courses and participated in self-help programming, the governor said. He also drew 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 partially inside the prison.

“While in prison, Mr. Thomas has dedicated himself to his rehabilitation,” Newsom wrote in his decision.

The California Supreme Court also made a recommendation for a clemency grant for Thomas, as is required in cases involving conviction for more than one felony, the governor said.

The commutation grants Thomas the opportunity to appear immediately before the Board of Parole Hearings, which will determine whether he is suitable for release on parole. The parole board has already voted to recommend a clemency grant for Thomas, Newsom said.


Thomas’ parole eligibility date was September 2030, according to the records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to an inquiry about a new date.

For the inmate editors and writers of the San Quentin News, the work is a reminder that life doesn’t end when people are locked up. They want to increase circulation tenfold.

Jan. 1, 2014

The podcast “Ear Hustle” — named for a prison 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 at San Quentin.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown similarly commuted the sentence for 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 contributing to its coverage as a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the prison population.

“I laid on my bunk, stared at the ceiling and wished to tell this story on ‘Ear Hustle,’” he wrote in a December 2020 Current story about the outbreak.

In a statement Friday, the podcast team described Thomas as “an important voice from the San Quentin community.”


“We often hear from listeners who are grateful for what he brings to episodes, and we encourage all to listen to his work from ‘Ear Hustle’ and to read his many essays,” the statement said. “While we don’t yet know when Rahsaan will be released from San Quentin, this news marks a concrete next step in that long process, and we couldn’t be happier for him.”

Thomas is also a member 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.