Two brothers, Eddie and Emile, sit in the small room they share, each on his own bed. Emile wants to watch a soap on TV. Eddie, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, asks him to use headphones so he won’t have to hear the TV on the Sabbath. Fine—in theory. But the headphones are too short to use while on the bed, so Emile takes them off. Eddie, who remembers soap operas playing in his violent childhood home, turns off the TV. Emile turns it back on. The tension continues for days, escalating beyond electronics: Eddie stops showering in protest. Emile starts smoking on his bed. “You’re gonna kill me with cancer!” Eddie shouts at his brother. “Fratricide! Fratricide!” their next-door neighbor yells.
Emile and Eddie aren’t just brothers sharing a room; they’re also inmates sharing a cell. The scene is recounted—by the brothers themselves—in the first episode of the podcast network Radiotopia’s show Ear Hustle, which launched in June and will run through October. The brilliant series is a collaboration between the inmates Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams and the prison volunteer Nigel Poor, and it is conceived, recorded, and produced from inside of San Quentin State Prison. The show addresses legislative issues through the personal narratives of inmates and highlights the universal experiences shared by those who are incarcerated and those who are not. “Everything that happens in prison happens on the outside,” Poor told me. “We really wanted it to be an outside/inside production in every way.”
The 30-minute, biweekly documentary series sheds light (or rather, sound) on lives that remain largely hidden from those on the outside. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, 1.3 million of them are in state prisons like San Quentin—yet contemporary first-person accounts of prison life can be hard to find. Ear Hustle and shows like it return some of the humanity that the carceral system removes and provide a link between inmates and outsiders.
Ear Hustle is credited as the first podcast to be created entirely in prison, but it fits into a broader legacy of prison-born audio shows. As the writer Annie Brown wrote in her 2016 California Sunday Magazine article on the history of prison-audio production in the U.S., the first radio show produced in prison began airing in 1938, and in the mid-1980s, inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary established what they claimed was the first licensed radio station inside a prison. The long-running program Radio Diaries also did a four-part series about the criminal-justice system that originally aired on NPR in 2001. In it, inmates, correctional officers, and a judge kept audio diaries for six months, recording, as the show’s website says, “the sounds and scenes of everyday life behind bars: shakedowns, new inmate arrivals, roll call, monthly family visits, meals at the chow hall, and quiet moments late at night inside a cell.”
Ear Hustle takes inspiration from these earlier shows but is different in one regard: It combines the insight of inmate-produced radio with the editorial freedom of a podcast. The show reaches beyond the borders of a broadcast radius and also benefits from Radiotopia’s established listener base; its episodes have been downloaded 2.9 million times thus far. And because the show is not broadcast on air, the producers have more freedom in what they can say and how they can say it. “We don’t have the restrictions of time or the language constraints or content constraints,” Julie Shapiro, Radiotopia’s executive producer, told me. “They can really do whatever they want with it.”
Poor began collaborating with inmates when one of her students in the Prison University Project approached her about shooting a documentary. When filming inside San Quentin proved too logistically difficult, they switched to audio and created an interview-based program that was aired on a closed-circuit station inside the prison. Soon, the local radio station KALW partnered with inmate producers to create San Quentin Radio, which airs on one of the station’s daily shows: The 5-to-10-minute segments explore stories about living with HIV in prison, transitioning genders as a corrections officer, and learning to code while incarcerated. Poor, wanting to create longer, more narrative-driven pieces, recruited Woods—whom she had met while working on the radio project—and the two of them conceived of Ear Hustle. When they learned of Radiotopia’s Podquest competition, they asked Williams to join them as the show’s sound designer.
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.”
Audio stories are powerful, in part, because they counteract the tendency to see those incarcerated through the lens of their crimes. “The world wants to focus on why we’re here,” says Anastazia Schmid, an inmate at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), in an episode of the radio program APM Reports from last year. “What they see is the felony of a crime that happened 20 years ago, but … nobody wants to know what in the hell is happening while we’re here.” Part of what Schmid has been doing while incarcerated is academic research. She and three fellow inmates presented their findings at the 2016 meeting of the American Historical Association. Because the women couldn’t attend the conference in person, they presented via video.
“If you close your eyes and just listen,” the producer Samara Freemark says in the report, the women’s presentations are “indistinguishable from the kind of lecture you’d hear delivered on the campus of any elite college.” For those who are incarcerated, such audio narratives can open a portal to the outside world as well. In the Ear Hustle episode “Catch a Kite,” inmates respond to postcards sent from listeners, sharing strategies for determining where to sit during prison meals and giving advice about what to say to an incarcerated relative. They are not just speaking into the microphone; they are speaking back to their audience.
But the portal can quickly close again. According to Poor, she spends 30 to 40 hours each week inside the prison, creating the podcast. This constitutes a full-time job, but in a world of constant communication—while I was talking to Shapiro, a listener tweeted at Ear Hustle from Belgium—the line between being there and not there is stark. “When I’m not in there, this veil goes down,” Poor told me. To discourage inappropriate relationships from forming, volunteers like Poor aren’t allowed to be on inmates’ visiting lists and therefore can’t call them. So her only way to communicate with Woods and Williams is to show up.
Showing up isn’t always an option. Lockdowns have kept Poor out of the prison for a week at a time, including halfway through this first season. Williams, Woods, and Poor record and produce the show inside the prison’s media lab. Because there is no email, Poor must transport files back and forth from the prison to get feedback from their outside consulting editor. During a lockdown, production stops, and Poor has no way to check in and no way to know when the veil will be lifted again.
The podcast is unstable in other ways, too. Poor worries that Woods or Williams will be transferred to another prison, which would effectively cancel the show. “A lot of this is dependent on the support of the institution,” Shapiro said. One prison official they depend on is Lieutenant Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer, who approves each episode before it airs. (There are, of course, the more prosaic worries about staying afloat: When Ear Hustle won the Podquest competition and joined Radiotopia, they received a stipend to cover initial operating costs; further costs are defrayed, but not yet covered, by advertisers and donations.)
Although Poor, Williams, and Woods report stories, Poor stresses the fact that they are not journalists. She has worked as a visual artist for more than 25 years and approaches this project from that perspective. “I think it’s a different way of looking at quote-unquote truth, human truth,” she said. “We are probably never going to definitively answer any question.”
But seemingly mundane experiences, Ear Hustle suggests, can reveal those human truths. The accounts that are common for those inside and outside of prison are ones of living: the difficulties of communication, the struggle of overcoming loneliness, the sometimes devastating desire to belong. Think of Eddie and Emile bickering in their cell: Who hasn’t chosen to be passive aggressive rather than express vulnerability?
These are stories about change, and that, in itself, is remarkable: Because when inmates tell their own stories, their narratives can evolve as their lives do. Ear Hustle’s episode “Misguided Loyalty” tells the story of Tommy Shakur Ross, who has served more than 30 years in prison for murdering a member of a rival gang. Poor notes on the show that Ross has changed since entering prison, but that the facts of his crime haven’t. “You can’t change the factors of your case. … The only thing you can do is move forward with your life and try your best to become a different person,” says Woods in response. “Muhammad Ali says it best: ‘The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.’ And if you’re gonna change, the story you tell about yourself has to change. And that’s true if you’re inside or outside of prison.”