Cori Thomas | The Genesis of Lockdown

By Cori Thomas

The first time I ever stepped foot in a prison was September 2016 with two podcast producers to do research on a show that did not end up happening. I fully expected to meet a bunch of scary, sketchy hustlers inside. My expectations were not met.

We locked our belongings in the rental car trunk and entered with our guide and escort, Lieutenant Samuel Robinson, the prison’s Media Officer. As we walked through the yard- I was struck by a few thing:  The number of times I had to show my ID going through security. The loud clanging gates slamming behind me as we entered the courtyard. The beautiful flowers planted in the courtyard after clearing security. The stainless-steel toilets and sinks outside in the open. The number of black and brown men.

I wasn’t nervous or afraid; But I admit that I had low expectations about the men I would encounter at the prison. Everything you read, or see in the media, about an incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated person focuses on the crime they are accused of having committed. A person convicted for a crime is doomed to be forever defined by that bad thing. I thought I would find a bunch of hustlers who would try to entice me to help them to get out. Under their breath, they would be frantically whispering to me, “I swear I didn’t do it!” I am publicly admitting this-because I was so ashamed of thinking this way by the time I left the prison that day, I knew I had to write a play to atone.  Most importantly, I felt I had to inform anyone else whose perceptions were also tainted by caricature media images- and thought as I did.

I’m a playwright and former actress. I am the child of two immigrant parents who were of different races, born on different continents. My Dad was a career diplomat, so I grew up living and attending school in the many countries where he was stationed. I say all of this to explain that I am fairly sophisticated in my openness and ability to get along with and accept all different sorts of people. Yet, clearly, that wasn’t enough to keep my mind open before walking into the prison.

The men we encountered at SQ that day were not at all the hustlers I had expected. They were all (and I don’t mean just one or two, because although we were there to speak with two men, we met and spoke with about 20 men that day) super intelligent, thoughtful, and self-aware. Not one man asked anyone for help getting out. It was a one-time visit of a few hours, but I left that day deeply shaken by how wrong I had been. Also, by the enormous percent of brown and black men who all looked as if they could be members of my family. The only thing distinguishing them from anyone else, was the fact they were all wearing the same blue uniforms, some with the word “PRISONER” in yellow letters running down the right leg. I left wanting to know more about them and wondering why so many intriguing men were locked up like this.

Synchronicity is a funny thing. It is a concept developed by Carl Jung which holds that there are no random coincidences. He claims everything that happens has meaning. In retrospect, thinking about how this played out, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Jung. Two weeks after the visit to the prison, I received a call from Daniella Topol, Artistic Director of Rattlestick Theater. She told me that she was in position to commission a female playwright, and that she had chosen me. It was a big deal because she was just newly appointed to the position, but also, because Rattlestick Theater, a funky, small, well regarded off-Broadway theater, had never issued a commission. I told her I had just visited a prison, and that something had been touched in me that needed exploration, so that might be what I wrote about. She gave me permission to write about any subject I wanted, but said, “Write something that scares you.”   I began writing a very bad “Death Row” play. It was dreadful, because a few hours in a place, random articles, books, and google, do not a good play make. At least not for me. I need to be able to organically hear the voices of those I write about, I have to organically understand their environment, and know who they are, why they are. Imagine my surprise in the midst of simultaneously writing what I knew was the worst play ever written, when out of the blue, I got an email from a man who was a long time staff member at San Quentin Prison asking me if I was still interested in working on a play with one of the incarcerated men there.

On my first visit, I had met an incarcerated man named Lonnie Morris who asked me what I did. When I told him I was a playwright, he excitedly told me about a play he had put together some time before for a program he had founded at the prison called No More Tears. He asked if I would be interested in helping him with a play for the program. I, ignorant to the point of stupidity about prison, gave Lonnie my phone number and email not knowing it would be impossible for him to call me, let alone email. Incarcerated people at San Quentin do not have access to email.

The Supervisor ran intermediary, going over the details of the program, and asking for my ID so that he could clear me for a year to be able to work with Lonnie on a play for his program (this is separate from the Rattlestick play) at my convenience. I was thinking, “A YEAR?!”

I live in New York, and I knew I could stay with my daughter, or a cousin and his wife who live in Oakland, but I didn’t yet know how I could afford to commute from NYC for more than one round trip, and I knew I could not stay at these kind people’s homes for a YEAR. I had an ulterior motive for being so blindly enthusiastic and accepting the prospect. I saw a small glimmer of hope to possibly infuse the pitiful play I was already writing with some accuracy and details. The Jungian theory continued to prove itself right when shortly before scraping my pennies together to buy my first ticket for a two-week trip; I won The Lippmann Family prize given out once a year by New Dramatists, a $5,000 grant bestowed on a playwright to pay for travel costs connected to researching a play. Bingo!

The actual inner turmoil I was going through about the terrible play is a bit much to go into detail here. Suffice it to say, I was feeling angst because, I knew Daniella, new at the job, had made a big show of her faith in me, and I was about to fail her, myself, and the honorable profession of playwriting, epically. I was about to prove I was a failure at my life. To make matters worse, before even beginning my prison volunteering, the theater was already asking me if I was ready to hand in the play, and I didn’t want to turn it over because it was so horribly bad. I told Daniella I was almost ready to hand the draft over, and I was excited about it, but since I was going into a real prison to do a different project, could I have a little extra time to get some specific information I needed for the play? And that is the state I was in when I showed up the at San Quentin for the second time within a year, this time to meet and work with a man named Lonnie whom I only barely remembered meeting.

I went through the security process again and was escorted across the yard by the Media supervisor. He informed me that some of the men in the yard could be dangerous.  Once in the media center, I re-met Lonnie who was waiting for me. Lonnie is a middle-aged caramel brown, slender, average height, raspy voiced man, with a quick smile that shows you the gap between his two front teeth. He frequently wears a heavy denim jacket, layered over a blue button-down state issued shirt over a long- sleeved gray cotton t-shirt, and a grey wool cap. I had no idea what he was in for nor how long he had been there. For some reason, the warning given while walking across the yard had not frightened me. Maybe because, as I said, so many of these men looked like friends, neighbors, and family members.

Lonnie is a sharp, quick witted, well-read, intelligent man.  Our first meeting went something like this: Me- “I’m so happy to be here to work with you, and I want to talk about the play we’re going to write for your program. But first, could you quickly help me with another play I’m having trouble with and have to hand over soon?” He looked at me quizzically. I launched into a quick synopsis of the terrible death row play and explained that I needed some details to give it… texture. I raced through the plot description. Lonnie, who would never be called quiet, was very quiet that day as I tried to make my play sound interesting enough in hopes that he would tell me I was wrong about how bad it was, or hand me the pearl that would turn it around. He let me finish and said, “I’m not helping you with this death row play. You are planning to kill the man off at the end. That’s bad luck.”

I am well enough trained as an actor, that I can usually hide my reactions. My wits are quick enough that I can think on my feet and improvise. I can and have talked my way out of a lot of sticky situations, but I’m pretty sure I looked like a fish out of water for a few seconds that day. It had never occurred to me that he might say no. I recovered- enough to try to explain that the play is just make believe, so I doubted it would be bad luck for him to help me. He held strong- Heart sinking, I realized I was going to have to send Daniella the terrible untextured death row play. I sat there on the verge of tears, with a fixed fake smile, and began thinking up plan B options for the rest of my life. But I suddenly thought to myself, “Wait a minute, how is he going to see what I wrote from inside of this prison? Hello. Relax Cori.” And so, I tried something very silly, at least in those parts. I tried to hustle a hustler. I said, as if I had just thought of something profound, “Wow, you are so right. Of course. I don’t have to kill the man off. He will not die!  He could be on death row and not die. So, now will you help me?” Lonnie chose not to dignify my brainstorm. He silently gave me a look that loudly said, “The same way you came in is the same way you can leave.”  I equally silently, acquiesced, “I’m sorry. And dumb.” When he did speak, he said, “Explain to me why you writers always want to write about death row?” I said, “Because it’s dramatic. Somebody trapped. Knowing they’re going to die.” He quietly and seriously said, “How come nobody ever wants to write about somebody like me? I’m dramatic too. And I may not be leaving either.” That stopped me in a different way, and I realized, without even knowing the details yet, that of course he was right. I said, “Tell me about yourself and your program.” And he did. And we began our collaboration for real.

I will never forget how, that first day, almost as if to get it out of the way, Lonnie told me about the case that sent him to prison…. When he’s finished telling the story, it’s as if he suddenly zooms back to today, 45 years later. He’s 69 again, and his age is evident. His sorrowful regret is palpable. Lonnie carries what happened close to himself always. He has not forgotten one detail of what happened that day, and I suspect, never will. In fact, I have noticed in many of the incarcerated men I have come to know, an uncanny recall of the details of the event that brought them there. It’s as if they’ve gone over it again and again and again. And I get it. We all do that when something bad has happened. We go back to the moment before and beg life to have allowed things to have gone in a different direction.

I have now spent a lot of time at San Quentin Prison. I am a board member of No More Tears, the anti-violence program Lonnie co-founded, twenty years ago. I attend the workshops whenever I can. I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of hours in the company of many men, some who have committed terrible crimes. I’ve never been disrespected. The warning from the supervisor as I walked across the yard was well meaning, and probably true in some cases.  I know there are some dangerous men incarcerated there, but I have never felt unsafe at the prison. I believe most of the men I’ve come to know, at this point, would take a bullet for me. I would do the same for them. I have never met men who treat me so respectfully. And I have gained an enormous amount of respect for incarcerated people, both men and women. The number of people incarcerated in America and the serious problem this represents is very close to my heart these days.

I’ve come to see my time spent at the prison as a privilege and a gift.

A digression that will hopefully make some sense: I hope. I was married for almost 20 years to a man named Chuck Patterson who was a journeyman actor and director. In other words, he was someone who had a career he earned a living from, but he was not a household name, except for the myriad of fans of the movie The Five Heartbeats. Still he went from job to job and was very respected among his peers. When we met in 1994, I was an aspiring actress who, on the other hand, had barely made a ripple let alone a splash in the field. I had first married someone else just out of my teens, had a child before reaching the age your brain is supposed to have matured. I was going through a divorce. Chuck was quite a bit older than I. He was a lot more successful than I at the same career I had dreamed of. In fact, by the time I met him, I had almost given up on acting. Feeding and providing for my six- year-old daughter was my first responsibility. But theater was never far from my dreams. An agent told me I was unmarketable. I apparently looked like too many races but not enough like any one in particular and this caused a problem. I was accustomed to showing up at auditions and being asked in over polite tones, “May I help you?” I was used to seeing the slight raised eyebrow when I explained I was there to audition for whatever role, black woman, white woman…whatever. I always looked too ethnic but not ethnic enough. One day, Chuck suggested I simply write myself a role I would be right for. I indignantly told him, “I am not a writer.” And I will never forget him saying, “You don’t know what you are or aren’t until you try.” And so, I began to write while he was out of town acting in a play. I mailed him the handwritten pages I had begun and promptly abandoned, having decided my writing was awful. He never mentioned the pages in our phone calls, except to say he had received them, so I decided they must be as bad as I thought. When he returned from the job, he came over one day and handed me a bunch of paper. I thought he wanted me to help him with an audition. But as I read, I recognized the words from the torn notebook pages I’d mailed to prove to him what a bad writer I was. I looked up at him with a kind of wonder, because typed, in correct play format, it didn’t read as badly as I remembered. He said, “You have the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen.” Then, “Finish this. If I could write like you, it’s what I’d be doing.” And that’s how I became a playwright. I traded up from being a totally unsuccessful actress to struggling writer. I continued to hold down “real jobs” with benefits, to be able to support myself and my child, and sometimes held down the fort when Chuck was between jobs. He was my biggest champion. Everything I wrote I handed to him to read first. He directed the first reading of every play. He directed my first professional production and it was glorious. He liked my work. He wasn’t easy on me. He pushed me to be clear about what I was trying to say. But he told me that he loved and believed my characters, my humor, and my ability to tell and see a story in unusual circumstances. In 2013, two days before Christmas, while sitting and watching TV, his heart simply stopped, and he died of sudden heart failure. I was in the middle of writing a play, which was the sequel to a play he loved. He kept saying, “I can’t wait to read this one.” After he died, I found myself unable to write a word to finish it. I would open my laptop and stare at the mid-sentence blinking cursor. The block lasted a scary long time. In fact, I was pretty sure I would never write again. After over a year of inertia, I did manage to finish the play so that I could get paid the balance of the commission. I owed one more play, and so I forced myself to write that one also. But every word I wrote was a struggle. My focus was off. My joy was gone. I hated writing and thought I had lost it, whatever it had ever been. I was terrified about what the future held. No one knew I was struggling. No one saw me staring at the blank screen on my laptop unable to write a word for hours at a time. I had also lost my desire to read. I have been a voracious reader since I was a child. I learned to read at age three, I skipped kindergarten and went straight to first grade. I had graduated from high school at age 16. I put on a brave face. I lied a lot, and pretended I was working hard. At whatever, like the death row play. Being a playwright had become my profession and identity, but words which had always been my best friend, had become my enemy.

As I walked across the yard to meet Lonnie Morris that first day, my anguish and lack of confidence in myself and my abilities was at an epic level. And when Lonnie told me the reason for his incarceration, my first thought was of the widow of the policeman he had killed. I immediately flashed back to the pain I felt at losing my husband so suddenly. And I realized that he too had caused someone to feel the horrible feelings I still felt now three years later. The reasons were obviously different, but the shock of the sudden loss of someone you expect to spend many future happy years with would have to be very much the same. And so, the fact that I never for one second hesitated to come back the next day is solely because Lonnie’s remorse and helplessness to change what he had done was so crystal clear. For some reason, it was then that I also realized that nothing would ever bring my husband back, and that staying stuck as I was in the moment before his death trying to change the future was futile and useless. The most important thing I realized was that no amount of punishment Lonnie could receive would ever match the punishment he inflicts on himself every single day. He cannot forget what he did.

I am now in my fourth year of going into the prison to volunteer my services. I work in the media center during the week with Lonnie and some of the other facilitators helping to design and plan aspects of the workshops. We work on our play, which is a bunch of transcribed interviews with men there we will put together and will one day use as monologues we weave together to tell a complete story. On Saturdays, when possible, along with the facilitators, other volunteers, and participants, I attend the remarkable No More Tears Workshops. I now chair the board of NMT and am on call to other volunteers and those citizens returning home.

My play LOCKDOWN is the reworked terrible death row play. I was gratified by the response from people who work in prisons and those with lived experience. Some remarkable things happened in the theater. Daniella insisted on conversations after every performance, and those conversations were amazing. We had victims of crimes speaking directly with those who had committed crimes. There was a woman who had lost her brother who decided that she now wanted to have a conversation with the man who had killed him. A former prosecutor in tears told the audience he realized now that he had sent some many people away and did not think of them as humans. And on and on. I credit Lonnie.

The day Lonnie told me about his crime, he also told me about No More Tears, the program he had begun in order to put a face on violence so that he could prevent young men from meeting the same fate he had. I realized that he was right, there should be a play written about someone like him. There should be lots of plays about people like him. When we first met, he had been incarcerated 40 years, he had just been turned down for the 17th time by the parole board. It is now going on 45 years and he is about to face the board for the twenty-first time on December 29, 2020. As I’ve spent time working and observing his program, I’ve learned that there are virtually no re-arrests when those who go through the program are released. And watching what happens, I get it.

That day, I said, “Suppose I scrap the death row play and write one about you instead?”  He said I was not allowed to do that. So, I asked him if I could just use him as research, ask questions, but write a fictional play. He thought for a moment and said, “I don’t think that’s against the rules.”

And that’s what I did. And it was not just Lonnie who helped, although he did read every single draft and the early ones were full of giant X’s question marks, and comments like, “THIS IS CORNY!” I told the men that I wanted to honor them by making sure the details in my play were as authentic and accurate as possible. They jumped into action. They told me related stories. They answered millions of questions.

My play was produced with the blessing and knowledge that a bunch of incarcerated men I had come to know very well at San Quentin, approved every word of. How? They, especially Lonnie, vetted and vigorously critiqued every draft. I allowed him to name my main character. And I gave the female character, Ernie Morris, his last name as a permanent gesture of respect. I wrote the play myself. I’ll take credit for that. But their DNA runs through every word. It could not be what it is without the advice, questions, graciousness, trust, input, and generous help of those men.

Finally, I realized that I had to try to match the level of trust and honesty they were sharing with me, and so I did something that was the scariest thing I have ever done; I put my own unvarnished truth in the play alongside theirs. And I wrote every single one of their names in the program acknowledging their help. And if it is ever published their names will be listed there also. Some of them told me that many people have promised to tell their story, but that I was one of few who had followed through and acknowledged them. I realized how many people take advantage of the incarcerated population in order to present those overdramatized images we have come to know so well. And I realized how much damage those impressions have caused to the lives of people I have come to care so much about and respect so highly.

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, so, if this were a play, what you’ve read so far, is considered the backstory and intro to what I actually want to say here.

As a result of the time and the quality of time I have spent with a large number of people who are incarcerated, most serving life sentences; I have opinions about what needs to change. I have a lot of feelings about justice and reform. The system is badly broken and in need of a major overhaul. I believe that the people who are leading the reform charge need to allow those with lived experience to participate in figuring out solutions, because nobody knows better what is wrong with the system. Also, nobody knows better how to come up with solutions. I’ve learned that many people who have been incarcerated have skills many of us on the outside dream of. Incarceration has taught those who suffered it wisdom and patience. Many incarcerated persons have an unparalleled work ethic. Their ability to follow instruction, and be collaborative is what any supervisor would dream for. The intuitive skills and bullshit meters of incarcerated persons are off the charts.

I have had the privileged opportunity to see men in circumstances women don’t generally get to. I have met many men guilty of terrible acts, many of them towards women. But yet, I am writing this because I have come to admire and respect so many of them for many reasons.  I have learned a world of lessons from them, and along with them. I have seen them show great vulnerability. The kind that takes enormous courage to display. I have seen how they take care of each other and how they learn to care about their fellow men and women. I have seen how the acts that brought them to prison, haunt them. And I have realized that no matter how long they stay in prison and no matter how inhumane their treatment. The punishment their self-realization visits upon them is enough.

What has made the biggest impression on me, is seeing people wanting and fearlessly working to locate the hurt part inside of themselves so that they can change their patterns of behavior. I did not understand what the words, “accountability” and “redemption” meant, until I met so many people who clearly do.

No More Tears gets brownie points from the parole board for those who graduate from the program, yet I am afraid that Lonnie is doomed to remain in prison for the rest of his life… I am not downplaying what happened. I am not dismissing the severity of taking a person’s life. I am saying that in actuality, Lonnie and others like him, could and would help prevent others on the outside from doing what they did. I believe it is a far more potent way they can make it up to society. Programs begun by and run by an incarcerated person have a greater success rate in preventing recidivism than one run by someone coming in from the outside who has no lived experience. Imagine a lot of these programs springing up all over the country on the outside. Imagine, paying people like Lonnie to become peace officers.

The word penitentiary comes from the word penitent which means to think and repent. That, and not endless punishment is what it was designed for. I don’t think prison should be a place to have your humanity stripped, nor to have your opportunity to love and be loved and find joy and beauty in the world revoked. Maybe that’s simplistic and idealistic, but it’s clear that the existing system does not work either. Do I think that there are some people who should not walk free? Yes. But do I think they are evil? No. They are ill. And illness should not be punished.

How about we get to know the incarcerated population better by hearing about who they are from their own mouths. How about WE start listening to THEIR voices with regard to reform. That is what is constantly left out of the equation, and it’s why the answers never add up.

I know for a fact, that access to programs and education, and an emphasis on rehabilitation, prevents recidivism and allows for transformation. I have seen so much brilliance locked up in this country. What we all are missing out on…the person who might cure cancer, or write the greatest novel ever, or the greatest song ever, or film ever…

In the end, the basic truth about incarcerated persons is that they are humans like any other, like you and me. They are imperfect. They make mistakes. They learn from their mistakes. They repent. They suffer. They laugh. They think. They feel. They love.

Update: For the first time, after being denied at 21 Board of Parole hearings Lonnie was found suitable to rejoin society on Dec 29, 2020. According to California law, Governor Newsom has 150 days to uphold or overturn the decision. We are all fervently hoping he chooses to uphold this hard-won decision



Fonda Shen