Massachusetts State House.

Interviewed by Hon. Catherine Ham and Carla Barrett

It was our honor to interview Thomas Koonce. Thomas Koonce was a twenty-year-old Marine who shot and killed Mark Santos in 1987.  In 1991, after a guilty verdict on a first-degree murder charge, Mr. Koonce was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  After serving over 31 years in prison, Governor Baker commuted his life sentence, which was unanimously endorsed by the Parole Board and the Governor’s Council. Mr. Koonce earned this extraordinary commutation for taking responsibility for his actions and helping countless inmates in their own transition and reentry to the community.  Mr. Koonce was released on April 19, 2022, and has been out in the community a little over a year now. The following is an excerpt of our discussion, condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: How did your expectations compare to the reality of being released?

Koonce: One of the things that I quickly realized was that some of the work that I had done in prison really prepared me for coming home. In programs like Restorative Justice and Second Thoughts, I dealt with people from the community, which gave me a chance to acclimate to socialize with them.  I did a lot of preparation on myself.  I dealt with a lot of the traumas, and I dealt with a lot about me, and I was really anxious about coming home and putting all that to use. I was kind of more excited because I had a great support system.

Q: Tell us about the first day or the first week after you were released.

Koonce: Even leaving the prison walls didn’t seem like I left the prison walls. After 30 years, I didn’t know what to expect. My two friends picked me up, and my lawyer and I went out to a really crammed restaurant. I was very cautious, looking over my shoulder, and not believing that it was real. Probably the first week of me being out, I was pinching myself like, am I really real? Even getting phone calls, picking up my first phone, right?  I don’t even know how to turn it on. But fortunately, I got a chance to have the tablets inside the prison and took computer literacy courses in prison, which helped me out tremendously. I mean, I was preparing to come home even before I knew I was coming home.

Q: What was your housing situation?  Did you have a job when you were released?

Koonce: The greatest part about my support system is that because of the work that I did behind the wall with Transformational Prison Project, we actually created the Restorative Justice Behind the Wall. By the time I came home, they had incorporated it out here into the community where they were operating restorative justice circles. Considering that I was the founder of Restorative Justice Behind the Wall, the program offered me a position as the co-founder of the program. I immediately came out into a job unlike many other people, so I realize the advantages that I had. A friend of mine who I met in prison, offered me an apartment and he actually held it for me for a whole year just believing that I was coming home. Transformational Prison Project took me out shopping. They took me out to get clothes and just handed me some money and said, “Here, you’re gonna need this.” I wish I could say that that was the norm for everybody, but I was really blessed with a great support system because of the work that I have done.

Q: What was one of the greatest challenges you faced when you were released?

Koonce: One of the greatest problems that I faced coming home was getting a formal identification and Social Security card. When I left prison, I was told that I just needed to get my birth certificate and my prison ID, and they’d allow me to get my Social Security card.  So, I walked into Social Security and showed them my prison ID and they looked at me like I had three heads.  They said,
“we don’t accept prison IDs.” I sat there debating for about two minutes and asked to see a manager. He came over and said that the prison ID is no good here, and that I would need another form of ID to get my Social Security card.  I said, no, it’s the opposite. I needed a Social Security card in order to get my ID. At one point, the office suggested that I go to a hospital where the hospital would give me paperwork giving me an address and the office would then accept the hospital paperwork and issue me a Social Security card. So, they wanted me to go to a hospital and pretend I’m sick so I can get paperwork in order to come back here? And I just thought it was so ludicrous. If you get the 18, 19, 20-year-olds coming out of prison, and they face these obstacles, that’s a deterrent for them to go right back to the lifestyle they’ve known because nobody wants to jump through hoops trying to do the right thing.

Q: What are other challenges individuals face when re-entering the community?

Koonce: I have one gentleman who literally doesn’t have an ID. He’s 18-years-old and just came home from incarceration. He has no documentation, his mother lost his birth certificate, and he has no address to be able to get an ID. He just came home and only has a prison address. This is the system setting up young men to fail.

Housing and homelessness are huge issues. I have several guys, working with me right now, that are homeless. They’re jumping from couch to couch to couch, and they don’t consider themselves homeless, because it can be degrading to say, “I’m homeless. I’m living with my girlfriend. I’m living with my friend tomorrow. I’m living in a hallway.” They are too ashamed to even say that they don’t have a home. They either got kicked out by their father, their girlfriend, or their brother, or whatever the case may be. Because transition into the family is tough coming home.

Another struggle is finding a stable job. One gentleman has been going to job after job, and he’s putting in the effort, but cannot find an employer to hire him because he is wearing an ankle bracelet. I mean, how degrading and shameful is the stigma that is attached to you with something attached to your leg?

Q: What kind of interpersonal relationship work did you have to do when you got out?

Koonce: I was so angry that my family didn’t show up while I was in the worst predicament in my life. I had a brother who lived 20 minutes from me but wouldn’t bring up my niece and nephews to come visit me. I had to realize that I had made some choices that caused me to be in a situation and that it wasn’t my brother’s fault. Coming home, one of the greatest things I had to do was swallow my pride now that I was out. I had to put that to the test.  I wanted to focus on my son and start building a relationship with my son who hadn’t seen me in 30 years. He was a month old when I went to prison, and 30 years later, here I am coming home to a son that desired to be with his dad.

Q: Was there anybody or any program that helped you to work on yourself in prison?

Koonce: I will attribute my transformation to my spiritual faith. There was a time when I felt that I was the victim. It was poor me. I shouldn’t be here in this system. Programs like Second Thoughts helped me to focus on the night of the murder. I had to realize the harm that I caused to the victim and his families. I read a newspaper article in The Brockton Enterprise. They featured my mom and Mark Santos’ family on the front page. The mother and father were holding their son’s picture.  That’s the first time I really got a chance to see him. They put a face to the gentleman that I had killed and that was an awakening for me. I read about how his mom and dad went out in the middle of the night and how his mother fell to the knees on the ground. I read about where all his friends and family were crying at the hospital. I mean, that stuff became a reality. I was literally, virtually in the hospital living that moment.  His mom took one look at the doctor coming out of the operating room and knew that her son was gone. At the same time, I was building my faith. I was asking God for forgiveness.

Q: Tell us about your current work.

Koonce: I have the privilege to work for Teen Empowerment. I am working as a reentry program manager for the Visions for the Future reentry program. The CEO Abrigal Forrester hired me and asked me to create a curriculum to help young men in their transitions. We have men who are 16 to 30 years-old coming out of the prison or Department of Youth Services facility. A lot of times, no one deals with the reason why they went into prison. Nobody takes a look at their childhood or their environments. We do an exercise called, “The Family Atom” where we get a chance to look into their family structures and have them place their mothers and fathers in positions where they were in their lives growing up. Things that come out are very therapeutic and very helpful for them to get a chance to say things that they never got a chance to say.

We do a needs and safety assessment to make sure the groups are safe. Gangs are a real issue out here, we want them to feel safe here. We’re also taking them outside the four corners of their neighborhood. We went to the Red Sox game a few weeks ago. First time for some of us, myself included, had gone to the ball game. I appreciate giving them that opportunity and to be able to join them as well.

I’ve hired three other mentors who have done time with me who are credible. One’s a former gang member, so he can tell you all about the gang life. One was a drug dealer so he can tell you about what what’s going to happen if you continue with the drugs. We have a combination of guys that are in here who have been there, done that, and have held down these streets long before they were even born.

Q: What do you believe is the key to maintaining success or the key to maintaining incarceration free?

Koonce: I think the key to successful reentry starts way before they come out. Ideally, I would say you need at least a year to work on your successful reentry. You know, there’s some PTSD, that comes with doing time. There’s some trauma that happens. You may not be the same coming home as you were when you left there.  What you do when you come out is really going to be indicative of what direction you take.  So proper planning behind the wall is key. They have to want to do well to, because a lot of men do not want to make those right decisions. So let me be clear about that.

Q: Where does that self-motivation come from?  I mean you obviously had it, but where does that come from?

Koonce: I believe that they have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired, and those are the people that I’ve seen come and finally get it right.  A person would leave prison and tell me, “Hey, I’m finished.”  I would be like, “How do you know you finished?” “Because I’m sick and tired of this, and my son, wants me home.” It has to add up, and when you tell me now you have a plan, you got a job waiting on you, you got housing. I know you’re serious about your reentry. I got disciplined from the Marine Corps. I had disciplined parents. That was one night, out with the wrong crowd and with the wrong mentality that cost me a whole lot in my family and his family as well.

Everybody comes from different backgrounds. Some of the stories that I hear about sexual abuse and physical abuse in their household. And these are angry young men who have processed that by alcohol, by joining gangs. Probably 80% of the young men behind prison walls have grown up without a father or grew up with a stepfather in the household that possibly wasn’t as attached as a father should be. We have a lot of angry men that are missing their fathers. If we could just add that up and get some mentors or get some role models, that would make a world of a difference. They need somebody to show them that they care about them, and that they want to help them to succeed. And that’s what we want to do over here.

Q: What is your favorite part about living outside of prison?

Koonce: I’ll just say this, you know doing 30 years in prison has helped me appreciate life. I went to the Esplanade on July 4th and enjoyed fireworks. I didn’t realize how good it was, right? So little things like that mean the world to me. Getting up, just going on the back porch and just enjoying the sunset. I hadn’t seen the bottom of a tree in 30 years, I mean, people take that for granted. We didn’t eat with spoons and silverware and glasses. All that stuff is a blessing, and you know. I just came from doing a natural life sentence and was never supposed to be home. I have no complaints. I love the life that I have. I love the freedom that I have, and I don’t take one day for granted. If I can put up with 30 years in prison, are you kidding me? I’m blessed to be out here. I’m blessed that God is giving me a second opportunity. I’m blessed that I can do the work that I love to do and get paid for it. So that’s what I have to say.