Social Justice

Rob Thomas - My Story

Part Four

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I would say the dark years lasted until I got out of prison at the age of 31. I went to prison from the age of 16 and got out when I was 21, then I stayed out for four years and went back in at the age of 25 for six years and got out when I was 31. So from the time my parents lost their house in Shiloh, around the age of seven, till about the age of 31, those are all dark years.

What changed was me. The prison system did not change me. When I first went in, the prison system made me worse and did not prepare me to re-enter society. When I got out when I was 21, I tried my best to get a job and not do anything illegal because I didn't want to go back to prison. That didn't work, because it was 2008, the middle of the recession. I'm competing with people with no criminal records and college degrees for entry level positions. I filled out close to a couple hundred applications and only got two interviews. One was at Sam's Club on Patton Avenue and the other one was at McDonald's on Brevard Road. Sam's Club denied me. The McDonald’s on Brevard Road, I cut my hair to try to get this job and everything and they interviewed me, said that I could work, gave me this used uniform and this used hat. At this point my pride was completely assassinated, but I was like, "It's better than prison."

So I went and showed up that night, supposed to work the late night shift, and they told me that I wasn't going to be able to work for them because of my criminal record. I had to get a ride there so now I'm in the dining hall waiting on my ride to come back and I just remember thinking, "If I can't get a job at McDonald's, if I'm not qualified to work at McDonald's, I can't work anywhere. Nowhere is going to hire me. This is the bottom of the barrel." I was like, "I guess I'm just stuck inside of a life of selling drugs," and that’s when I made the decision to go back to selling drugs. I was 21. I called up some of the old people I knew. Got it started and…four years later, got arrested for drug trafficking, manufacturing marijuana, possession of multiple schedules, possession of a handgun.  And what changed was when I first went in there, I was angry at the world. I felt like I was forced into that situation, forced in the prison and that lifestyle, and I was angry. I was like, "Why could people who I felt were less intelligent than me make it and I couldn't?" And then I got mad at myself and then I started asking the question, "Why, why, why?" I don't understand because I'm in closed custody. That's the most extreme version of the state prison.

When I first got there, the first thing I saw was a person getting stabbed in the neck, and so I'm extremely angry, extremely violent again. And I asked the question why and God, the universe, they'll answer the questions that you ask and it answers in the form of books and people. And then I learned about America and it was actually...I was where I was supposed to be. I read all these books. One of the books I was reading was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. And it was banned. I wasn't supposed to have that book in prison. And I read other books. I was at Alexander Correctional Institution in Alexander County [northeast of Hickory, NC]. I was at closed custody; you're in a room 23 hours a day. Closed custody is high security. That's the highest level of security.

But yeah, books and people. I started attending these services at what's called the Moorish Science Temple [of America] and they gave me a lot of information on African history before slavery. And also, they gave me several links to plenty of black leaders that came before me. I never heard of Marcus Garvey and didn't really know about Malcolm X or Noble Drew Ali [founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America] or all these other influential black people who tried to fight the same things that forced me into the situation that I was in. And I'm not going to sit here like a victim. I still made a lot of conscious decisions that were wrong, but I do feel as if I was coerced in making some of those decisions because of my life and my reality.