Shirley Williams

Prison Preacher and the quest to document him

Shirley Vernae Williams is an Emmy Award nominated director who works for Refinery29. She is self-declared “story-telling obsessed” and is currently working on a film about a preacher who became a murderer and then the redemption of an entire prison and hundreds of men. The Des caught up with her this past June.

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

A year and a half ago, Shirley was at church when her minister mentioned that Martin Thomas was coming back to New York. The congregation was a buzz, but she had no idea who Martin was. So Shirley asked her mother. Martin, she learned, was a minister who murdered someone and was returning after decades in prison. 

Naturally, Shirley wanted to talk to Martin. Then she heard him speak, read a few books and was hooked on his story. After many talks with Martin’s wife, she got in the car and drove to talk with the ex-minister. What unfolded before her was a story about the power of love and redemption. 

Martin was sentenced to prison after killing his business partner for reasons he will disclose for the first time in Shirely’s documentary. He’s never told anyone even his family, why he killed the man. 

Martin’s story starts after he went to prison and lost contact with all five of his sons. He entered prison and became the pastor of the prison’s church. The prison was violent and terse with gang rivalries, but his power as a pastor transformed it.

"He brings all that energy, all that swag into the prison, completely changing the culture"

In his 23 years he baptized hundreds of people per year and started many programs that emphasized rehabilitation for inmates. 

He also fell in love with a caseworker in what Shirley said is “a very complicated love story”. They reconnected after her retirement, and he married her the day Martin left prison in 2017. 

Martin Thomas

After Martin left prison, his wife and him started a program called Foresight For-Givers to provide men on parole housing and food at no cost. 

Housing is a huge block for returning citizens who often can’t qualify for housing assistance, are blocked from rentals and can’t live with family in public housing due to their criminal records. 

The documentary has “a lot of layers” she said. “[The story] will be leaning heavily on the mystery of why Martin committed this crime. We’ll also get to see the impact that he’s had in the prison and hear from men whose lives he changed and then focus now on the impact that he’s having outside of prison walls,” Shirley said.

Martin is a “remarkable” man who enrolled his parole officer to become the director of operations for Foresight. “I mean, this is how powerful this man is,” Shirley said. “That shows how dynamic and how moving of a man he is.”

"He is a story that just speaks to second chance and possibility and redemption"

“So often us, as a society no matter what the crime is when people get sent away, we write them off. Martin is completely opposite. He did a horrible thing. And to this day, he hates that he did that thing. I think he’s still in a space of trying to forgive himself after all these years, over two decades. But he’s a person like everybody.” 

“I’ve committed crimes. I just haven’t gotten caught. Like you, me, so many of us commit crimes, commit wrongdoing and, you know, a lot of us don’t get caught. He got caught.”

How does this story speak to the bigger criminal justice world?

“The system is really designed to support these ex felons return back to prison. So in Indiana itself, when you get out, you can’t go to an apartment. Like, even if it’s your mom’s apartment or your brother’s apartment, you have to go to a home. So you have to go to a place where someone owns a home. 

So then these men, when they come out of prison, especially those that are there for long term, usually these are not first time offenders. They’re probably not first time offenders within their family or friends dynamic. So they probably have burned bridges. People don’t want anything to do with them. So their chances of having a place to return, the pool of people gets slimmer and slimmer and slimmer. So then you have people already don’t want me around. 

And then for those that do want me around, they then have to be in a bucket of they have to be homeowners. A lot of these are Black men. A lot of Black folks, especially in these urban communities, don’t own homes. So then it starts to get more complicated. So many of Martin’s men have violated parole simply because they did not have a home to go to. So then they’re thrown back into the system, not because they committed a crime, not because of wrongdoing, simply because they didn’t have a home. 

So Martin’s design is really to help tackle recidivism. He now owns two homes and he creates a space where these men can stay at forever because he knows just not having a home can lead you to violate parole, which can throw you back into the system. So he’s tackling that in that way.

He’s also tackling recidivism in a way where the programming that he’s designed for these males to help you on unlearn bad habits, unlearn thinking, thinking, unlearn negative belief systems, and put on new things that can help you to create a new life for yourself so that you’re not engaging in poor and old bad behavior that once led you into the into prison in the first place. 

What are you most looking forward to exploring in this film?

He had an unspeakable bond with his sons post the crime. That bond was broken. It was almost as if Martin didn’t exist. He wasn’t talking to the sons. Twenty three years. He never saw one of the five. He didn’t start getting letters until his sons were older and started to learn.But in all that, what Martin didn’t do was Martin did not victimize himself. 

He took his power and channeled it into other men. So he became the father, although he temporarily lost five, he became the father of hundreds. And I’m looking forward to being an example by showing how you can still be powerful in the context of loss. It’s really about your perspective. We always have a responsibility to use our tools and talents and gifts to forward the planet. And to be supportive of other human beings. 

What have you learned about yourself so far?

I learned through Martin and through watching him, I saw how far I have to go when I thought I was compassionate. It allowed me to see how judgmental I could be and how wrong I was within those judgments. And that when I thought I knew so much, I knew nothing. 

I also think he helped me to connect to my people, Black people specifically in a way where I was just like I live in a bubble where even for my own people I’m not aware of so many of the hardships and the pain and suffering. He kind of burst that bubble. 

Shirley has gone to film in Indiana twice and hopes to raise enough money that, COVID permitting, she can begin interviews this September. Donate here to help complete this documentary. 

“I need money from individuals, from organizations, people who are down for the cause, who want to support in telling stories of second chances – telling true, authentic stories of what happens within prison walls and ending recidivism.”


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