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Prisoners inside one of California’s prisons are getting the opportunity to be heard -- behind bars and beyond. “Ear Hustle” is a podcast that offers listeners a rare look at inmate experiences, from race relations to sharing a tiny cell. Jeffrey Brown reports.
Next, how a podcast is providing an intimate look at life behind bars in California's oldest prison.
The audio series "Ear Hustle," the first podcast to be produced entirely inside a prison, has steadily grown in popularity by laying out in vivid detail the everyday experiences of inmates at San Quentin.
Jeffrey Brown has our story.
You are now tuned into San Quentin's "Ear Hustle."
What gives you hope in prison?
Damn. Getting out, that's all I can hope for.
On the popular podcast, "Ear Hustle," they call this yard talk.
What does it mean to be institutionalized in prison?
Like, just being stuck in a rut. Even though that you know these things are not right, but you're still doing them, though.
For the inmates at San Quentin, it's a chance to be heard far beyond these prison walls.
"Ear Hustle"'s stories and the sketches by inmates that accompany them offer a rare look at life inside a prison. The phrase is slang in here for eavesdropping.
How do you take your coffee?
I really don't drink coffee in here, because I like don't like to stay up. I like to sleep it off.
Sitting just north of San Francisco, San Quentin is a California state facility that's home to some 4,000 men, most under medium security, but it includes more than 700 on death row.
It's a place known for its education and work opportunities for prisoners, including a media lab, where we watched the show's co-hosts in action, inmate Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, a San Francisco-based artist who's been volunteering in San Quentin since 2011.
The purpose of the podcast is to try to tell the everyday stories of life inside prison, and trying to find the commonalities between what happens inside and what happens outside of prison.
I did not realize that I could be potentially facing life in prison.
"Ear Hustle"'s stories can be raw and intense about the realities of race relations, for example.
You're one with your race. If something happens between two races, everybody is supposed to go, whether it's fighting or whatever.
But there's also plenty of humor and relatable problems, such as sharing a tiny space, as in the episode called "Cellies."
You can't walk by each other. One person either got to sit on his bunk and the other person can walk by.
The rule is, don't touch my stuff, don't look through my mail, don't look at my pictures, do not put your hands on my shelf, because, if you do, that's like the ultimate form of disrespect.
Earlonne Woods, who has served nearly 20 years on a 31-year-to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery, says that "Ear Hustle" is a reflection of his own coming to terms.
As you go through time, you have to get real with yourself and you have to come to the conclusion, well, I did do this. You know, and I am accountable for my actions.
And I think most people that are here that's been locked up over a decade are on that path, to where they're trying to atone for whatever may have happened in the past or just trying to find some type of understanding, you know?
Woods met co-host Nigel Poor while she was teaching a photography class at San Quentin. The pair hit it off and quickly built an easy rapport that has become the backbone of the show.
One of the original intents was to show that inside and outside people can work together as colleagues with professionalism and mutual respect.
And I also can be the voice of the person who doesn't have experience in prison. So, I can ask the maybe embarrassing questions or push Earlonne a little bit.
Last year, a pilot of the series won an international contest put on by PRX's Radiotopia that helped introduced "Ear Hustle" to a much larger audience.
Within a few months, it was at the top of the iTunes podcast charts, and, to date, episodes have been downloaded more than six million times.
We wasn't trying to send no messages, nothing like that. We were just, let's tell some good stories. Let's get some good people to tell stories.
Nigel Poor says finding good stories at San Quentin has never been a problem.
There's a lot of gossip inside prison.
So, it's not hard to get the word around that you're looking for something specific. So, at this point, we can get people coming to us and saying, I want to do this story.
For the podcast's sound designer, Antwan Williams, who is serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery, the challenge is to capture the feel of daily life here, including what he calls the sound of despair.
What would despair feel like? What would it sound like?
It can be just the sound of breathing by itself, with no interruptions, with no echoes or with no chimes, just the sound of a breath.
"Ear Hustle" follows the long tradition of inmate-produced content at San Quentin. The prison's newspaper has been published since the 1920s.
The first time I'm eligible for parole is 2044.
One episode, called "Left Behind," included the story of Curtis Roberts, who is in his 23rd year in prison after being sentenced under California's three strikes law.
The crime I committed was that I walked into a liquor store, I snatched two $20 bills out of the cash register, no weapon.
After I got caught for stealing the $40, I pled guilty to burglary, robbery, and they gave me 50 years to life.
Roberts says he eventually felt safe enough with the "Ear Hustle" team to talk about something rarely spoken of- He'd been raped inside San Quentin.
They really helped me feel comfortable and calm. And I never felt threatened. It was a comfortable environment.
What do you think is the biggest misperception about people in prison?
I think the perception is that we're these monsters in here. I am not a monster. I'm a stupid idiot that did drugs and stole money. I'm still human, though.
Every "Ear Hustle" story, no matter the topic, must be approved by Lieutenant Sam Robinson, San Quentin's public information officer.
Lieutenant Sam Robinson:
I think, as a society, we're responsible. We pay for what takes place behind the walls of a prison. And you're accountable for it. And so, if you're accountable for it, you should be informed about what that is.
Robinson says the only episode he nearly prevented was titled "The Boom Boom Room" about conjugal visits, both legal and illicit.
At San Quentin, the married guys who have them get to spend 48 hours with their family in a cottage on prison grounds.
OK, that's the official, legitimate way. But people being who they are, they're going to find a way to do their thing.
I have been here 21 years, so I have…
You know, it's not the first time that I have heard it. It's not the first time that I'm aware of illegal sexual activities taking place inside the prison.
"Ear Hustle"'s creators say they have been overwhelmed by the response to the series so far.
But I asked Woods what he'd tell those, including victims of crime, who might question his freedom to do this work.
Everybody has their truth, you know? Even the victims and the survivors that you're speaking of, they have their truth, whether we should have this or not.
But I believe that the whole purpose of the Department of Corrections or prisons is for one to correct themselves. So, if the underlying reasons for prisons is for us to correct ourselves, there should be some type of rehabilitative services.
Woods and the rest of the team are now at work on season two of "Ear Hustle," set for next march.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in San Quentin Prison, California.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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