Here at Forgive Everyone, we work to provide platforms for individuals who have dealt with the criminal justice system to tell their stories. These stories not only allow us to empathize with realities outside of our own, they are completely necessary to the restructuring of our conventional values. One of these stories is that of Kamisha Thomas, a native of Columbus, Ohio, who was sentenced to nine years for armed robbery. Here is her journey.
Thomas was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. “I had a normal life growing up,” Thomas said when explaining her childhood. Though her parents were unmarried, both were present in her life, barring an eighteen-month incarceration her father served when she was nine. She had a protective mother and was a strong student. After earning a degree in broadcasting,Thomas would go on to start The Mama-Razzi Media Group, a production company where she helped produce music videos, promos, and performances. However, a turning point came about six months into running her company which would shape the direction of her life. Having fallen asleep while watching a Twilight film with her children, tragedy struck. “We fell asleep watching that movie, and woke up to a robbed house, everything was gone.”
Many of Thomas’ belongings had been robbed, including all of her equipment for her business, putting her in a seemingly impossible situation. “The next two months were the hardest of my life,” Thomas lamented. “I was trying to find a job to replace all of my equipment.” On top of needing to replace her equipment, Thomas was also trying to move out of the neighborhood, where multiple other robberies had taken place. “At one point I went to a Wendy’s to apply for a job and the lady after I walked out– I watched her from the window – throw my application in the trash.” With options running thin, Thomas turned to a different idea.
“I wasn’t an angel by any means,” she explained. “I had, you know, been around a criminal element. Not necessarily saying I was a criminal, but I was no angel.” After months of a fruitless job search and a dire need for money, she decided there was a different way to get the money she needed. “Long story short, I robbed a bank.” Needing ten thousand dollars, she convinced her then-boyfriend to assist her. The pair went on the run. Eventually, however, Thomas’ parents identified her to the police. They were caught in South Carolina and extradited back to Ohio. After serving seven months in the county jail, Thomas was sentenced to nine years for armed robbery. With no prior criminal record, as well as having gone through a brutal extradition and holding at county, Thomas just wanted to remain invisible. “I was really bitter about it for a long time,” she explained of her parent’s role in her arrest, even believing at the time that she felt like she would not have been caught. “I didn’t really want to speak to them or talk to them or communicate with them at all, but they had my kids, so I had to.” Thomas explained that the first few years of her sentence were particularly difficult. “I didn’t want to participate at all in life. But it took some serious soul searching – and then I actually did forgive them.” Writing letters to her family, Thomas made it clear that it was for the best that they identified her to the police – that it was for the best that she was arrested. “My life wouldn’t be where it is right now.” After the decision to forgive and accept her situation, Thomas decided to be proactive.
“I participated in every program and every educational opportunity that I could.” Realizing she could meaningfully and positively grow from her sentence, Thomas also set out to build positive relationships with the prison staff and administrators. These relationships became so positive and strong that she became known as such a model inmate – even to the warden – that Thomas was able to leave prison on four separate occasions for speaking engagements and film screenings. One such speaking occasion involved giving a speech at St. Clair Community College, in front of two hundred people, including senators and the Montgomery County Officer Reentry.
Of the many programs she involved herself with, “Pens to Pictures” and art therapy would prove to be quite impactful, as well as be where she would build a relationship with Aimee Wissman, one of her future colleagues. “By the time I left prison, I had staff, medical staff, the warden, investigators just all types of people really rooting for me and wishing me well.” Thomas’ healthy and positive relationship was essential to her growth in prison, though seemingly uncharacteristic of many prisons the nation-over. “The rules state you can’t participate in certain schools…until you are five years from your out-date. That meant I would not have been able to participate in any school or meaningful program until 2015, but because – I think it had to do with the fact I accepted my situation and I decided to make the best of it and do what I could to improve upon myself… things started to change for me,” she explained, stating she was able to advocate for herself to get into these programs early.
Eventually, after serving seven and a half years, Thomas was able to leave prison and return to her children. From her experiences she had while serving her sentence, Thomas co-founded the Returning Artists Guild with Aimee Wissman, whom she had grown close to in the Pens to Pictures and art therapy programs. “We’ve been working diligently to advocate returning artists and finding a niche for ourselves,” Thomas said of the organization, adding they also “…advocate for currently incarcerated artists…who may have a need for supplies or just want their art to be seen and continue to make [it].”
As a true beacon for equity in communities, the Returning Artists Guild in providing for and supporting artists to continue their passions, and getting their art seen and sold at a fair price. “In the penitentiary, you will have artists – really good quality artists – drawing portraits of people for next to nothing. I’m talking about maybe ten dollars’ worth of stuff at commissary. Like a bag of coffee or a couple packs of noodles and, you know, a bar of soap.” Thomas added that often times, these incredibly talented artists sell their work for virtually nothing just to survive. “Maybe their family can’t afford to support them with the outrageous costs of everything from phone calls to items and food. That’s what keeps me personally fighting for the artists.”
Thomas herself has also received an individual artist grant from the Greater Columbus Art Council. “It was used to purchase equipment. So I’ve got a light kit, a drone, a gimbal, a dolly, a slider, microphones and all types of stuff,” she explained with joy. “I am overcoming technological barriers. I was incarcerated for seven and a half years…so technology changes a lot.” She added that though there were smartphones before she was incarcerated, the level of what you could do seven years ago compared to now is significant. “It’s insane.” One of her projects, BANG! – a short film influenced by the events of her life – was entered into a short film contest where the winners get to compete in a larger competition. BANG! won the September 2019 competition. Her second short film, Extricate, is currently in the works as Thomas searches for a producer. As she continues to pursue her passion of filmmaking, Thomas noted “My biggest dream with filmmaking is to be as controversial as Spike Lee, as profound as Ava DuVernay, and as heart-wrenching as Tyler Perry. “So if you could combine all three of those filmmakers up and put them into one person, then that’s who I want to be.”
Thomas also draws inspiration from Chinonye Chukwu, whose film Clemency was recently in theaters and spearheaded the “Pens to Pictures” project which Thomas was a part of. Chukwu also has the distinction of being the first black woman to win the Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize – the festival’s highest honor. “[She] has inspired me and taught me the fundamentals of writing a good short film and taught me about character development.” With her films, Thomas wants to force readers to evaluate their moral compasses, empathize with individuals facing significantly different realities, and to examine their privilege. Because of her desire and dedication to not only exploring themes of justice and society, but to bringing them to the forefront of our consciousness, Thomas was one of six to be selected from a competitive pool of applicants to be awarded the Right of Return Fellowship. This fellowship awards grants to artists pursuing projects that are aimed at reforming criminal justice. In addition, Thomas is currently working on three short films which examine and expose the rampant injustices of the justice system.
Thomas is also driven to expand Returning Artists Guild to every major city in Ohio, as well as expand to states they may not have a Returning Artists Guild. “I want it to be a national network of artists who have been thrown away by society because they have that stigma of being incarcerated. I just want to create a voice and a lane for them to flourish and thrive.” This goal consists of objectives ranging from learning to crafts and skills, to working with and receiving support from professional mentors in order to reach their goals.
“Forgiveness has played a huge, huge role in my life. Forgiveness and acceptance. Those two things I had to come to terms with before I could move on in life.” Thomas shared with us. Forgiveness is one of the seven principles of her spiritual faith, marking it as fundamental to her worldview. This idea also encompasses the forgiveness of yourself, which for Thomas, and many others, was the most difficult. To Kamisha Thomas, forgiveness is essential; the easier you can forgive, the easier you can move on and past what is holding you back. “Forgiveness is not for the other person. Forgiveness is for yourself. It is for me. So that I don’t have to carry around the weight of that grudge, that animosity, that burden. I can’t catch my next blessings if I’m not able to let go of the junk from the past.”
Check out the Returning Artists Guild on social media Instagram: @returningartistsguild
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