2015 Feature, Medium Newsroom winner

Stickup Kid


About the Project

If Alonza Thomas were a teen today, he might not have spent 13 years in an adult prison.

Thomas was just 15 years old when he held up a convenience store in California. No one was harmed, and Thomas was a first-time offender. But he committed the robbery in 2000, shortly after California passed a new law allowing harsher penalties for juvenile offenders. Proposition 21 was just one of many similar laws passed nationwide, aimed at stopping an anticipated crime wave from so-called juvenile “superpredators.”

Facing as many as four decades in prison, Thomas pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 13 years in an adult prison. Much of that time was spent in solitary confinement.

Stickup Kid, a digital-only project, uses the story of Alonza Thomas to explore what happens when a state sentences juvenile offenders to serve within an adult prison population. We meet Thomas shortly after his release in 2013 and follow his struggles to adapt to life outside — to find a job, to use a cell phone, to learn to drive. We also witness the profound and lasting impact of a well-intended but potentially misguided policy decision.

The “superpredator” scare would later be debunked as myth, but not until after 45 states passed laws making it easier to prosecute youths in the adult criminal justice system. In recent years, many states have reconsidered those policies, prompted both by budget shortfalls and a string of state and federal court decisions objecting to harsh sentencing for young people.

While Thomas was locked up, California’s prison system was being monitored by the federal courts for cycling inmates — particularly those with mental illness — through isolation, treatment and back into confinement.

Thomas, who became suicidal after spending weeks and sometimes months at a time in isolation, was one of the inmates named in a lawsuit that forced the prison system to introduce new policies this year.

We chose to tell Thomas’s story in two ways: a linear, 28-minute documentary; and a multimedia presentation that used the Creatavist storytelling platform. The presentation allows the audience to move through the story at their own pace without losing the rhythm and flow of the longer documentary, although the full film was still easily accessible in the navigation. It also allowed us to incorporate primary source documents and text to offer additional information and insights between video scenes.

After the launch, we took questions from viewers who wanted to know more about how Thomas was coping with life after prison. We consolidated his answers, and published them online.