‘Tough, frightening, funny, tender’: A new podcast chronicles life behind bars

Ear Hustle co-creators Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, and Earlonne Woods. (PRX)

Earlonne Woods’s room is the size of a large walk-in closet. It has a toilet, a sink, two lockers, a bunk bed, and a handful of personal belongings. Plus, two grown men. It’s a four-by-nine-foot cell inside California’s San Quentin State Prison. Woods jokes that he can touch one wall while his back is still on the other.

He isn’t in it all day, though, and when he’s not, there’s a good chance you’ll find him in the prison’s media lab. That’s where he and fellow inmate Antwan Williams, as well as visual artist and prison volunteer Nigel Poor, record their newly created podcast, Ear Hustle. In the first episode, called “Cellies,” Woods and co-host Poor give listeners a firsthand perspective on what it’s like to live in such close quarters.

In prison, the phrase “ear hustle” is slang for eavesdropping. And that’s exactly what Ear Hustle is letting listeners do. The podcast gives the audience unprecedented access to daily life at San Quentin, including stories about inmates who keep cockroaches and mice as pets, and the experience of solitary confinement. Such day-to-day realities aren’t unique to this particular prison. Close to 2 million people are incarcerated in the US today, and each episode of Ear Hustle offers a unique glimpse into their lives, 30 minutes at a time.

Poor, center, and Woods, right, interviewing in the prison yard. (PRX)

“The goal of project is to show a more three-dimensional view of prison,” Poor says. “Life in prison is tough and frightening, but it’s also funny, tender, and amusing. Everything that happens on the outside happens inside prison, too. It just happens inside a deeply cloistered environment.”

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In pop culture and media, “the guys in prison are portrayed as callous monsters,” Woods says. They’re seen as uniformly “uneducated, negative, just hanging out in the prison yard playing games or watching TV, rioting, and not doing anything positive or productive with our time and life.” But prisoners are “regular people trying to make amends.” For some, that means learning trades, getting their GED, or participating in self-help groups. For Woods and Williams, it means making a podcast.

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True-crime podcasts have gripped listeners since Sarah Koenig told us about the murder of Hae Min Lee in 2014. Serial was a game changer for podcasting, but also for the genre. Its first season spawned series like Criminal, from Radiotopia; Crimetown, from Gimlet Media; and In the Dark, from American Public Media. A slew of smaller-scale podcasts follows a similar playbook.

But Ear Hustle is different. It’s not just about those in prison, but created by those in prison. Williams, the show’s co-producer and sound designer, has served more than 10 years of a 15-year sentence for armed robbery; Woods has done 19 years of his 31-to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery.

“It is my hope that people understand that we are regular people that somewhere along our path took a wrong turn,” Woods says.

Poor’s initial assumptions about prison were shaped by what she had seen on TV and in the movies. That changed when she started volunteering in 2011 as part of the Prison University Project, an on-site, degree-granting college program at San Quentin. Slowly, she began to see that prisoners’ lives were not so different from the lives of “normal people.” She was committed to bringing a sense of normalcy to the men in San Quentin by sharing their stories.

“We’re not trying to let anyone off the hook, but trying to show the people as people [who] we can understand and have connections with,” Poor says.

Each episode is a statement on human nature, told by people who often have their humanity questioned.

In the first episode, Woods connects his experiences with “cellie life” to others at San Quentin. Listeners hear about the “cellie,” or cellmate, “from hell”; adjusting to a new cellie; and dealing with smells (think cigarette smoke or body odor) in tight spaces. At one point, Woods reflects on his relationship with his own cellie, Cleo Cloeman, who was recently released from prison after 22 years. It’s a surprisingly intimate and bittersweet moment.

“There is a lot of levity in there,” Poor says. “People just expect everything inside prison will be heavy and scary, and that’s not the case.”

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Through its two dynamic co-hosts, Woods and Poor, Ear Hustle fills a void in the saturated market of true-crime podcasts. Their insider-outsider banter creates a nuanced view of life behind prison walls. Woods is the listener’s escort through the world of the incarcerated; Poor is the audience’s surrogate.

Ear Hustle isn’t the first foray into journalism for the occupants of San Quentin. For the last century, men incarcerated there have published the San Quentin News, originally known as Wall City News. When it started in 1920, it was billed as “the only newspaper in the world published within the walls of a prison.” It now employs more than a dozen incarcerated men, under the guidance of a handful of volunteers and professional advisers. With Ear Hustle, San Quentin can now add “the only podcast created within the walls of a prison” to its legacy.

Woods and Poor working in the San Quentin media lab. (PRX)

Poor planted the seed for the show in 2013, when she and a handful of inmates launched a radio project called The San Quentin Prison Report in collaboration with KALW, the local public radio station. Those stories were shorter, more straightforward, and incorporated into a larger broadcast. But Poor wanted to do something more impressionistic, abstract, and longform.

“Because radio has a specific listenership, we needed to work within a certain format,” she says. “With podcasts, we have more freedom; we could create our own format.”

Ear Hustle is just the latest addition to Radiotopia, the podcast network run by the Public Radio Exchange. It’s become known for its experimental, sound-rich podcasts, including 99% Invisible, Song Exploder, and West Wing Weekly. Poor’s initial plan was to broadcast Ear Hustle on the prison’s closed-circuit channel. But her focus shifted last spring when Radiotopia announced Podquest, an open call for new podcast ideas. Poor suggested they submit a 2-minute promo. It was chosen from 1,573 entries. Ear Hustle’s concept was one-of-a-kind, says Julie Shapiro, executive producer of Radiotopia.

“We’ve never heard anything like this idea before,” she says.

Since they won Podquest, Poor, Williams, and Woods have been churning away in their makeshift studio, the San Quentin media lab. It doesn’t have internet access (one of the constraints of prison), but is equipped with computers, recording gear, and editing software.

“Usually we sit around, and come up with things we’re curious about, or we bring up stories that we’ve ‘Ear Hustled,’” Woods says. “Then, I write a pitch after doing a field interview and see if that pitch gets the green light from Nigel or Antwan.”

Poor gets to the media lab early, usually by 9:30 am. Most days, Williams and Woods are already there. Together, the three whiteboard pitches, discuss story structure and sound design, conduct interviews, and log tape. To find his stories, Woods relies on old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.

“I keep my ear to the ground and I listen for the stories that make me say, ‘Damn, that’s a great story,’” Woods says. “Also, I’m about to start posting topics on the wall in the buildings or just asking guys on the closed circuit television station if they have stories that they feel the world should know.”

Woods and his crew also face challenges most reporters don’t; there’s a lot of red tape in prisons. Setting up the equipment, for example, took months. Without internet access, the team has had to get creative with sound design. They can’t tap into an online trove of sound effects, so they make their own. In one episode, they tried to recreate the sound of a shower by throwing buckets of water against a cement wall.

“In prison, you always have to find a workaround,” Poor says.

Not everything has a workaround. All of Ear Hustle’s episodes are reviewed by Lt. Sam Robinson, the prison’s public information officer, who did not respond to requests for comment at time of publication. It’s the only way they’re able to produce the podcast. To some, the stories might be considered “approved.” To others, “censored.” Poor says they’re not trying to ruffle any feathers with Ear Hustle. So far, Lt. Robinson hasn’t pushed back on any of the content.

“We’re not journalists, we’re not trying to change system in an overt way,” Poor says. “That might surprise or disappoint people.”

Poor doesn’t consider the podcast “journalism,” as they have to work within the framework of what the prison will allow. But she does see it as a complement to journalism. Ear Hustle might cover the same subject as a news organization like The Marshall Project, but does it with a different tone, style, and perspective.

“There will be pushback that this isn’t an investigative journalism podcast, and that why aren’t we doing more with the opportunity,” Shapiro says.

Ear Hustle dives into the daily life inside prison. (PRX)

The first season will have 10 episodes running every other week. It already has an active base of listeners, maintaining a position in the iTunes ‘Top Ten’ since its debut on June 14. The stories, though presented through the lens of prison life, are universal. One episode is about loyalty (in the context of the repercussions one man faces from joining a gang). Another is about nurturing, framed by the story of “Roach,” a San Quentin inmate who cares for critters around the prison. Each episode is a statement on human nature, told by people who often have their humanity questioned.

Podcasting is intimate, making it the perfect medium for these stories, according to Shapiro. It could be anyone talking: your friend, a neighbor, or an inmate at San Quentin. You might react one way to someone like Woods on the bus, and another when listening to his voice, Shapiro says.

“People are less judgmental when listening than when watching,” she explains. “You start in a much more neutral place, and audio just strips all those preconceived notions away.”

Both Woods and Williams hope their newfound audio skills extend beyond their time at San Quentin. Once released, they want to pursue careers in audio engineering. That’s something else this podcast is doing: giving inmates hope.

“Working with Nigel gives me a glimpse into what it’s going to be like being a productive citizen in society,” Woods says. “I mean, I’ve never worked this hard on a project before. With Antwan and Nigel, it’s a collaboration, and we don’t agree on everything, but that’s what makes this work.”

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.