This story is part of WHYY’s series “COVID-19: Remembering lives we’ve lost” about the everyday people the Philadelphia region has lost to the coronavirus pandemic, the lives they lived, and what they meant to their families, friends and communities.
Colleagues, friends and family describe Thomas “Reem” Cotton as a brilliant legal scholar who would give you the shirt off his back if you asked, and would never reduce a person to label, much less the worst mistakes of their lives.
Though he never said as much, that mindset likely came from the almost 28 years he spent in prison paying for some of his own worst mistakes, and he lived the latter half of his adult life showing there was so much more to him.
“I never really made that transition [into prison],” Sean Kelley, a close friend and colleague at Eastern State Penitentiary, remembered Cotton saying last summer. “I was always out here in my heart. I never unpacked my bags in there.”
The 54-year-old North Philadelphia native died April 29 at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital from complications brought on by COVID-19, just over one year after his release.
A magnetic Philly kid runs into big trouble
Born in February 1966, Cotton grew up an only child in North Philly. He attended parochial schools until he reached his teens when he would graduate from Dobbins Technical High School.
Those who knew him say Cotton loved playing softball and handball from a young age, and he rooted for the Los Angeles Lakers as long as anyone could remember.
As a teen, Cotton had a magnetic energy about him. He was social, and childhood friends and relatives said he often found school wasn’t challenging enough, which led his mind to wander.
After he graduated from high school, Cotton often held down multiple jobs, looking to provide for his first son, Dezmond.
What led Cotton, at age 25, to take part in a 1991 drug house robbery in which two men were fatally shot is unclear.
Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences for the murders. A trial judge would later grant Cotton’s motions to vacate those sentences. In 1995, the trial court dismissed the two second-degree murder charges, and Cotton continued serving time for aggravated assault and other charges.
Though academics who worked closely and taught with Cotton during and after his release from prison say he was transparent when students asked about his convictions, it’s something he never discussed in detail with the love of his life, Karen Watson.
“I can’t really say [why],” said his wife who knew Cotton for close to three decades. “It wasn’t a proud time in his life, so I don’t know if he thought that that would change how I saw him.”
Gaining degrees and ‘giving game’
What Watson and most people know and remember best is the Cotton who emerged during his years at Graterford State Correctional Institution in Montgomery County.
In fact, Watson first “met” Cotton during his initial incarceration at Philadelphia’s now-shuttered Holmesburg Prison. She worked with a friend at a hotel front desk. Cotton often called that friend from prison and one day, Watson happened to pick up the phone.
The charming man on the other end soon started calling for her. Early on, he ordered her a lunch she craved, delivered right to the front desk — the beginning of a lifetime of “little gestures.”
It wasn’t until Watson asked to meet Cotton that they realized she didn’t know about his incarceration.
“At this point, I was already smitten,” Watson said.
Cotton talked to Watson constantly. In what became Cotton’s signature trademark among those he loved, he would call Watson and other family members multiple times a day, no special occasion required.
Thomas Gavin, one of Cotton’s cousins, described a relative so involved in people’s lives, it felt like he wasn’t behind bars. Whether it was dropping life lessons that could only come from an older cousin who’d made mistakes (he called it “giving game”), offering Gavin advice on how to woo girls during his teenage years, or promoting Gavin’s flower business, Cotton was always there.
When Cotton wasn’t keeping up with his family, he kept busy with his other passion: the law.
He worked as a paralegal in Graterford’s Para-Professional Law Clinic and whenever he saw someone who lacked legal representation, Cotton offered to help research legal strategies for their cases or guide them through the endless forms going to parole boards.
In less than a decade, Cotton had developed a reputation for being a self-taught legal wiz.
Cotton was known for spending his free time in hearty debates about criminal justice policy and he would mull the philosophical writings of Michel Foucault and Immanuel Kant for hours at a time.
By taking a class or two a semester, Cotton received his associate’s degree from Montgomery County Community College and his bachelor’s from Villanova University while incarcerated.
Cotton also believed he needed to share his experience with people from different backgrounds to spark changes in the criminal justice system. He jumped at the chance to take part in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which college students are brought into prisons to meet with incarcerated people and learn about social justice issues.
Cotton’s never-ending pursuit of knowledge was one he tried to impart on his friends and family. When his youngest daughter, Jazmeen Feagins felt frustrated by how long it was taking to finish her undergraduate program, she remembers a tender but motivating hand.
“He’d always encourage me to keep going, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, he didn’t care about time frames,” she explained. “He was like, ‘Why does it even matter?’ to keep going, even when I didn’t want to.”
Cotton also had plans to keep pursuing higher education.
He was enrolled in a master’s program at St. Joseph’s University when he was released in February 2019. Cotton was still working on his thesis at the time of his death.
Cotton had also talked about going to law school. His goal was to change the way people thought about incarceration.
“He did not believe prison was a way to rehabilitate a person,” said Watson.
Cotton often thought about the history of punishment in the United States and why African Americans are often punished more severely than their white counterparts.
Swarthmore political science professor Ben Berger invited Cotton to co-teach a class on the subject last spring at Princeton University.
“He was somebody who knew whereof he spoke, and so his voice had this gravitas, not only because he knew the texts, but because his interpretation of the text was informed by actual lived experience,” said Berger. “Students always have a nose for that sort of thing — they can smell when someone has authenticity about them.”
Cotton also became the Eastern State Penitentiary’s Supervisor of Education and Community Engagement, where he helped design the “Hidden Lives Illuminated” film series. The program, which featured short animated films created by incarcerated people at the State Correctional Institution – Chester about their experiences, garnered national media attention.
Still, it’s the things that rarely make the news that Watson cherishes the most about her husband, like the first time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and how Cotton learned everything he could about the illness so he could help her and support her from prison.
She said she’ll miss how understanding he was when they split up in 2005 and how he reached out to offer his support when her oldest son died in 2012.
Watson remembers how happy they were when they remarried in 2014, and how, in the roughly one year they had together after Cotton’s release, he brought her a token of his affection every day.
Nothing big. It might be a hard candy, or an hors d’oeuvre from an event wrapped in a napkin.
Watson, who is once again battling cancer and needs an oxygen tank to breathe, said no matter how long of a day Cotton had, he’d come home and woo her to go out for a drive with her pet name, “Sugar.”
“We’d get in the car and he’d say, ‘Pick a direction’ and he would just drive and we would end up somewhere,” she said.
Cotton made those kinds of gestures until the very end. One of the last things he did was to leave his daughter a voicemail, just because, telling her he loved her and wishing her goodnight.