‘Ear Hustle’: A New Podcast From Inside San Quentin Prison
“You can lock up the body, but you can’t lock up the mind."
“Ear Hustle” is a newly launched podcast created entirely from behind the walls of San Quentin Prison. And it’s a hit.
Believed to be the first media project of its kind to be produced within a United States jail or prison, the podcast’s ten episodes vividly give human form to life on the inside—as told directly by those living it. Its no-pretense, zero-bullshit, quick-to-laugh, quick-to-realness vibe is a credit to the trio at its collaborative helm. The banter and audio stylings of Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both currently incarcerated at San Quentin, and Nigel Poor, a Bay Area visual artist and prison volunteer, are always frank, often funny and ever-shadowed by the realities of life in a 6×9 cell.
Each of “Ear Hustle’s” 30-minute episodes are crafted inside the medium-security prison’s Media Lab and delve into a specific topic, ranging from the tender to the heart wrenching. Misguided loyalty, how to find a cellmate, isolation, starting a family and keeping a pet are all tackled in the premiere season.
Since its launch, “Ear Hustle”, which borrows its name from prison slang for eavesdropping, has absolutely held its own—ranking among the top 25 best national podcasts.
In a current political climate where the country’s top cop is calling for a return to the failed policies that cemented the Unites States as the world leader in jailing its own people, and where the momentum for real criminal justice reform at the federal level seems to hang in the balance, “Ear Hustle” is essential listening. Although it opts not to immediately sound the alarm on the horrors of prison, their approach—subtle, seemingly lighter—is still effective, a different front in the same war.
“Ear Hustle” does its part to combat the inequity and cruelty of the system through the power of story. Theirs is a resistance found in the art of chopping it up on the everyday. The human. The fleshy. The podcast gives indelible face to who exactly has been and continues to be forced to carry the burden of these policies. As co-creator Antwan Williams told The Marshall Project recently, “If people don’t know exactly who it is that’s incarcerated — if they don’t know people on a personal level — it’s hard to care about the laws that dictate the lives in here.”
“Ear Hustle” does just that. It makes prison personal.
MASS APPEAL jumped on a call with Nigel Poor, the podcast’s “outside” collaborator, to talk about the origins of “Ear Hustle,” the obstacles to working inside, and the search for true purpose.
Why is it essential for you to be part of the literal amplification of the voices that are currently incarcerated?
That’s something that we’ve talked a lot about. One of the goals of the podcast is to mirror the possibility that outside and inside people can work together as colleagues and have mutual respect and push each other and do something important together. That’s one of the reasons to [include] an outside voice [in the podcast]. Two, I function as the representative of people who haven’t been incarcerated and maybe don’t completely understand what it means to be in prison. I can ask the question and then interpret stuff for those who don’t have experience. And then Earlonne and I play off of each other’s perceptions and understanding of the world to hopefully deepen the story and push the narrative forward.
None of you had ever done a podcast before. You all met the challenge of creating and executing it on equal footing—as students.
Absolutely. It was really important that it was something new. I’m a photographer and so that’s my area of expertise. I didn’t want to do a concept in there with something I already knew a lot about, where I was going to be sort of like the teacher. This way, we really help each other understand how to use Pro Tools, how to do an interview. In fact, Earlonne and Antwan are way better at using Pro Tools than I am so they are constantly teaching me stuff. And I really like that. There’s no way one of the three of us can claim the project. We really need each other to make it work.
What have Antwan and Earlonne taught you, then? Who have they become to you?
Well, they’re great colleagues. They’re people I really respect. They taught me a lot about ingenuity and how to not give up on stuff. How you can live with a lack of control and not let it drive you crazy. Because I don’t know what your experience is with prison but you know one thing I’ve learned is just man, you give up everything when you’re incarcerated. You have no control over your day to day experience or your body. And that’s so frustrating but somehow you know Earlonne has managed. To say he thrived sounds really weird but he has. I mean he’s been in prison twenty years and he’s one of the, he’s so intuitive and has such a great sense of character and has a really great ability to read a room. I’ve learned a lot from that and deeply admire that. When you want to tell stories, you’ve got to be really good at observing things. He has that down.
How did you come to meet Antwan and Earlonne?
In 2011, I went into San Quentin to teach for the Prison University Project. I was teaching a history of photography class. And through that… there’s so many interesting people in here that have a lot to say. One of the other men approached me about helping him do a documentary film. We started working on that and it was just impossible. It was too hard and so we decided to do audio instead. And again, at that point I didn’t know anything and we just started recording people’s stories. I was interviewing the men and we were playing them inside the closed circuit station inside the prison. Then a local radio station heard about it and wanted to help expand the project. They came in and started training us, about eight men on how to put a story together. We started airing those stories on KALW in 2013. I worked on that until recently. And then I wanted to do something that was less news driven and more from the perspective of an artist. I had met Earlonne and Antwan through that radio project. We had the same work ethic. We saw ourselves more as artists and less as journalists. It just seems like this would be a great team.
We started to plot on how to do a podcast and then I heard about Radiotopia‘s Podquest [an open call for podcast ideas] and we decided: let’s submit and see what happens – and we got it. Its all unfolded over quite a few years.
Can you shed some light on San Quentin? It’s a unique facility in so far as it actually offers engaging programming and access to education through the Prison University Project and more.
Yeah. San Quentin is a medium security prison. It’s in the Bay Area and as a result, there’s a lot of access to volunteers. There’s a ton of really good programming that happens in there: Prison University Project, there’s a Shakespeare company that goes in, there’s a lot sports teams that go in there. There’s a meditation group and there’s a great media lab. There’s a really wonderful newspaper too, that’s been published on and off I think since 1940.There’s also the radio project. As far as prisons go, it offers a lot more programming, so it seems much more serious about rehabilitation.
It seems San Quentin is helping to break down assumptions as to what prisons can or should be, in much the same way “Ear Hustle” is doing. It’s breaking down the stereotypes of who is incarcerated. It gets at a common humanity.
I hope so. That’s what we really want to do and that’s one of the reasons why we’re concentrating on the everyday story of life inside. You know, the things that everybody experiences, whether you’re incarcerated or not. We’re not like a true crime podcast. We’re not flooding the streets, we’re not going into people’s crimes, inside if they’re guilty or innocent. They’re really talking about what is daily life. We’ve been accused once or twice of not being political enough. Antwan’s response to that was great. He basically said how do you get people to care about changing lives if you don’t get them to care about who’s inside. Our stories are about making you realize that these are your brothers and fathers and friends that are in here and if you care, once you care, then you’re going to care about changing the laws.
And honestly, what’s more political than that?
I feel that way too. We’ve heard we’re not being political enough, you’re not trying to overtly tear the system down. But we are, but in the way we can handle doing it. There’s other people who can do that same work and I respect it. That’s not what we’re doing. We are trying to attack the problem just in a different way.
What are the obstacles to working behind walls?
The first big obstacle is communication. We normally work when we’re face to face inside the prison. Once I leave, I can’t call those guys. There’s no internet. They can’t email. So, we work really long hours. I tend to go in there eight to ten hours a day, sometimes twelve hours. We got to take advantage of all the time we can to be in [the media lab]. But, then things can happen, some incident would happen at the prison and we can’t go in, and I can’t get in touch with the guys. And so we always try to at the end of the day, before I leave, to make sure we have a very concrete plan for what we need to accomplish just in case I can’t get back in or if something happened to one of them so we can keep moving forward. That’s definitely a challenge. Prison is also incredibly chaotic so it’s loud all the time. There’s people coming and going. It takes a long time to do a story. Probably longer than most people on the outside. It takes us a couple months to get a story done. And now that we have a production deadline, I have a lot of anxiety. Like are we finished? [Laughs] I sleep a lot less these days. You know that’s a challenge for anyone trying to do good work. But you just have to add the fact that we can’t work whenever we want to. We have to work on the prison’s schedule.
You have to just be patient and persistent and polite is what I always say. You can’t lose your temper or if you get frustrated, it’s not going to help. Nobody is going to care and in fact it’s going to work against you. That’s another thing I really learned from Earlonne and Antwan: just patience, patience. Don’t let anyone get you ruffled.
How are topics selected? Does the DOC have to OK them?
We do pitch sessions. We have a sit-down and we talk about what we’re interested in and who we might want to interview and then we just start working on a story and then before it goes out, everything has to be given to the public information officer whose name is Lieutenant Sam Robinson. He’s great. He will say his primary concern is the safety of the institution. He has to think about how our show is going to be heard. Is it going to harm any of the guys inside or cause problems? He’s never censored anything. I feel like he supports what we do. That being said, I know there’s topics we can’t cover. I always look to Earlonne and Antwan to decide that. I think that’s maybe where people question what we’re doing. But I just can’t see it as censorship. It’s being careful. You know, we want to do this project. If something goes bad, Earlonne and Antwan can’t leave and so I take their safety really seriously. You know, guys can get in trouble. It’s important to keep that in mind.
What were the initial goals for “Ear Hustle” and how have those changed since its been so well received?
We originally thought we were going to do it regardless if anyone heard it. Once we learned that it would be heard and that we’d have [Radiotopia’s] outside support, then we didn’t know how many people would actually hear it. The second part of our goal is to now try to get it heard in as many prisons as possible. So, I’m starting to work with the California Department of Corrections to figure out how to play it inside. I think there’s thirty-four institutions in California. They all have closed circuit stations. It’s really important for other incarcerated people to hear. We’ve also been contacted by prisons in Wales, Scotland, England, Alabama. They all want to find out how to play our show inside.
Alabama? That’s a shock.
I know! We would also love to figure out how to do some kind of collaboration with other prisons.
Will there be a season two?
Yes! We were going to do a season two whether radio still wanted us to or not. I think that they’re going to because it’s going really well. I’m fifty-four and I feel like this is what I want to do with the second part of my life so I’m dedicated to making this happen. Earlonne and Antwan are as well. I don’t see us stopping anytime soon. Antwan has a fifteen year sentence. He is going to be getting out in a couple years and that will be interesting because I’m hoping that he’ll be set up to be able to continue to do this. Earlonne has a very long sentence. He’s a three striker. The first time he goes up for parole is 2026 which is just terrible. Sadly, he’ll be around for quite awhile – unless the laws change in California. So we’ll definitely keep doing this.
It seems that not only have Antwan and Earlonne found purpose and meaning through the work, but you have too.
Absolutely. I am a deep believer that to blossom and to feel good as a person you have to have purpose. You have to feel like you’re contributing in some small, large effort and when you don’t have that you just whither. I hate lost potential. That’s one of the things that’s so upsetting about prison. You go in there and you see all this intelligence and ability not being fully used. Wasting ability is just a terrible thing. I love seeing people have the opportunity to be the best that they can be. Just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have that opportunity as well. I don’t think anything rehabilitates better than education.
The next episode of “Ear Hustle” drops July 12, 2017. Subscribe here.
If you have a question for the podcast or want to drop a note of support, send a postcard to:
Ear Hustle SQ
P. O. Box 883723
San Francisco, CA 94188-3723
Shout Out to Antwan and Earlonne: We hear you. We salute you.