Woods and Poor co-host Ear Hustle and speak for each side of the inside-outside dichotomy. “I can be the voice for people on the outside who haven’t had experiences in prison,” Poor told me. “And Earlonne is definitely the voice of the experience of being incarcerated. He’s the authority there.” Woods, who is in his mid-40s and is almost two decades into a 31-year-to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery, provides a reality check for Poor’s at times naïve understanding of prison. In the episode “Looking Out,” which explores the ways inmates fulfill their drive to nurture while incarcerated, Poor relays a story she heard about an inmate who was in High Desert State Prison for 10 years without hearing or seeing any dogs.
“One day he heard a dog barking,” Poor says, “and he was so overwhelmed by it—”
“Bullshit!” Woods interrupts, the word bursting from his mouth.
“Why do you say bullshit?” Poor asks, laughing.
Woods explains that not only can inmates see dogs on TV, but also the unit that investigates whether inmates have contraband patrols the prison with dogs. “They have dogs,” he says. “So their dogs is gonna walk through the institution, through the buildings, and they’re gonna bark.” You can almost hear his eyes rolling.
Their dialogue is playful and lively. Poor calls Earlonne “E,” and Woods shortens Nigel to “Nige.” Williams, meanwhile, is responsible for the show’s auditory details. The sound designer is in his late-20s and has served more than a decade of a 15-year sentence for armed robbery with a gun enhancement. In “Looking Out,” an inmate named Rauch (pronounced like “roach”) talks about caring for animals in prison. There’s the low croak of what sounds like a tuba when Rauch describes a frog that followed him around his cell, and then a fly buzzes by as he recalls catching insects for his spider. The intimate noises fill in the silence around the stories, embedding them in a three-dimensional soundscape.
Ear Hustle’s setting shifts in and out of focus. In “The SHU,” Woods talks about the time he spent in the Security Housing Unit, known in some states as solitary confinement. He describes how he and his cellmate wrote screenplays to keep themselves entertained: “My screenplay was about my fantasy life where everything went right. Where I made my momma proud, never went to jail, married my high school sweetheart, went to film school. But I still had my roots in the hood, and sadly, I had to kill off my character. … It’s like you’re the god of that world. It’s the only thing that you can control in the SHU. So why not kill off my character and then resurrect him in part two?”
“I should have known that E wouldn’t die,” says Poor.
Personal narratives like Woods’s provide an opportunity to explore legislative issues. In that same episode, inmates describe the 2013 hunger strike that contributed to ending indefinite confinement in the Security Housing Unit in California. Meanwhile, Woods’s sentence, which is written into the introduction of every episode, is a result of California’s Three Strikes sentencing law. Prior to 2012, the law mandated that a defendant convicted of a felony who had two or more previous serious or violent felony convictions be sentenced to a prison term of at least 25 years to life. “He’s in for a long time for something that doesn’t seem as drastic as people might think someone who’s in for 31-to-life might be in for,” Shapiro said of Woods. “I think your general listener picks up on that kind of thing and starts thinking about fairness of the laws ... and if they’re doing right by the people that are in prison.”