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In 2017, the NewsHour reported on the first podcast produced entirely from inside of a prison. “Ear Hustle” offers a rare look at inmate experiences, from race relations to sharing a tiny cell. One of the show’s co-hosts was released in November, and Jeffrey Brown went back to California to catch up with him and find out what’s next for the hit podcast.
We return now to a story we first brought you in 2017 about a podcast produced entirely from San Quentin Prison. One of the show's co-hosts was released in November, after serving more than 20 years behind bars.
Jeffrey Brown went back to California to catch up with him and find out what's next for the hit podcast.
All right, so this is really different from when we were last together.
Yeah. This is — you know, you was like…
You know, but now, it's like…
(TAKES A DEEP BREATH)
For Earlonne Woods, the routines of daily life are anything but. These days, he chooses when to wash the dishes, check e-mails, pack a lunch. No more tiny cell, hordes of other men, strip searches.
Some of his biggest concerns now are simple, and relatable to all.
No lie, I have been out maybe 40 days. I have put on 10 pounds.
I have been put on 10 pounds. I have been looking to lose 30 pounds for at least 20 years. So I'm going to get there.
Now it's 40 pounds.
We first met Woods in 2017, when he was an inmate at San Quentin Prison. He was serving a 31-year-to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery.
And along with San Francisco-based artist Nigel Poor, he was the co-host of "Ear Hustle," the hit PRX podcast produced entirely from San Quentin that gave a rare and intimate feel for life behind bars.
One way to show yourself and everyone else that prison doesn't own you is to look your best, is self-respect, self-preservation. So that's what we're going to hear about on this episode.
How do you guys do it? How do you keep your clothes looking sharp.
How do you keep your skin clear?
How do you get a good haircut?
And, also, we're going to hear about what some guys do to escape this place in their minds.
With an on-air rapport like lifelong friends, the pair gathered stories and interviews from inmates in the yard. The show picked up millions of listeners over three seasons, and covered everything from cell mates to death row.
But perhaps the show's biggest moment came this past November:
We got some breaking news, Earlonne. It's the day before Thanksgiving, and today you got some amazing news.
After 21 years in prison, Governor Brown, the great governor of California…
… decided that I served enough time in California state prison, and he commuted my sentence.
Woods has been paroled to Oakland, where he's received housing through Re:Store Justice.
Even his daily commute is a novelty.
A lot of this stuff is new. Like I say, I take it in. Like, the average person might — they might take everything for granted. I sit here and observe. I'm with it. I'm taking it in.
In his commutation letter, Jerry Brown, who just finished his tenure as governor, said that Woods — quote — "set a positive example for his peers and through his podcast has shared meaningful stories from those inside prison."
It says Mr. Woods is — quote — "clearly no longer the man he was when he committed this crime."
When I got locked up in 1997, my mind, it was just like a light switch just flipped. Like, I'm done with that side of life. I'm done with the crime, I'm done with the gangs, I'm done with everything. You know, I'm just going to move forward in my life and just do me.
Today, I'm probably back that 8-year-old dude I used to know, you know, but I'm just older now.
So, yes, I'm back to my authentic self.
That authentic self is clearly what appealed to so many listeners of "Ear Hustle," and Woods now has a full-time position with PRX to continue working on the podcast.
He will be based at the offices of Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, California.
Nigel Poor will keep going to San Quentin, working with a new co-host and facing new challenges.
In what ways do you see it changing the podcast?
This is the thing I think about. There's actually something that is beneficial about working with a lot of constraints, and inside prison obviously there's so many restrictions.
And I think that forces you to be really creative and problem-solve. I like working that way.
And that's what you have been dealing with for the last few years.
And now, without that, I do wonder how — for me, the challenge is going to be, how do we keep the intimacy of the project, now that we literally have the world in front of both of us to do various things with it.
One issue the two will tackle is based on Woods' new reality, the process of reentry to society.
And on the day we visited, Woods and poor were tweaking their scripts for a special "Ear Hustle" episode featuring an interview with Governor Brown, recorded after the commutation.
What do you think about a podcast being produced inside a prison that basically you oversee, I mean, you have control over?
Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif.:
I think it's good if you can pull back the veil of secrecy and let people in on what the reality is of actually being locked up.
The team was also learning the ins and outs of a new recording studio, one far from the media center at San Quentin.
Come on, now. Tell me how it feels being in here.
Well, I mean, it feels cool. We back to what we do. So, you ready?
All right, partner.
You're listening to a special, unplanned, abbreviated episode of "Ear Hustle."
You have got to think about the "Ear Hustle" podcasts in a different way, I guess, huh?
Yes, I think so. Part of what I never paid attention to is that we humanize people. You know, we were just going in to tell stories, you know, not really looking at it like, oh, this is a sequestered population that don't too many people know about.
And I think it's the same way out here, is that reentry is a part of the population that a lot of people don't know about.
I know, on the podcast, you have explored this idea often, the sense of loss, you know, the shame of lost time, lost connections. Do you feel now like you have to make up for lost time?
Not at all.
Not at all. If I do make up for any loss, it's with my immediate family, you know, the time that I have been gone, the time I have been away.
My mother just turned 70. My mission is to spend time with her. I'm not trying to go too fast to catch up with something that I have missed or nothing. I'm just waking up every day enjoying the fact that I'm waking up free.
When we talked at San Quentin, I asked you about victims of crimes.
How should they feel, look — watching you and watching what you were doing at San Quentin and watching you now?
When people come to jail, they have to rehabilitate themselves, they have to change their thinking, their mind-set.
And I believe that as far as me, if a person is looking at me, they're saying, OK, well, he's doing the right stuff. He's doing all the right things to get out of prison. He got out — got out, got a job. He's going on about his life.
So I would hope that they're looking at me is like, OK, if there was a lesson to be learned, he learned his lesson. So I would hope that that's how they see it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in the San Francisco Bay area.
What an inspiration.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
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