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Behind 'Ear Hustle,' The Podcast Made In Prison

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 19, 2018 11:13 am

Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods wanted to start a podcast about life in prison. It would be for inmates, by inmates, to be played on the closed-circuit station in San Quentin State Prison in California — "for the inside," as Woods says.

Woods is serving a 31-years-to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery. Poor is a visual artist who volunteers at San Quentin.

Their humble expectations grew when they found out about a talent contest for new podcasts, sponsored by Radiotopia. They entered. They won. And their podcast, Ear Hustle, became a hit. ("Ear hustle means eavesdropping in on other peoples' conversation — being nosy," Woods explains.)

Poor says, "I think a lot of people, unless you're involved in the criminal justice system, the prisons are these invisible places. We don't know what happens inside of them. And so hopefully our stories make human the people that are in here."

Working in prison comes with a host of obstacles. The studio is an echoey concrete room, with no phones or Internet access. There are constant interruptions — even when they were taping an interview with NPR.

Ear Hustle is now in its second season, and — with help from prison officials — we finagled a way to talk with Poor and Woods from inside that makeshift studio.


Interview Highlights

On whether Woods learned things about prison life that he hadn't already known

Woods: Well, I would say I've learned about different conversations that I didn't know nothing about. I don't know if I have learned anything different.

Poor: Were you surprised, though, about how vulnerable people would be talking to us?

Woods: Not really. I mean, some people, yeah, but for the most part, people love to tell stories. Especially if they're telling them to, you know, the right people. Some people be apprehensive about telling certain stories, probably, to the media. But when you're dressed in blue like them [other inmates], yes, they will divulge.

On the richness of prison life

Woods: Oh, we haven't even got to, like, Shakespeare, or artistic ensemble, or — there's a lot we haven't even touched yet.

Poor: There's so much happening here. And San Quentin is a little bit different in that it has a lot of programs for people to do — it has a lot of volunteers that come in, so it's a very active community. Someone asked us if we'd ever run out of stories, and I think it's going to be a long time. Because as you said, it's very active in here; there's very rich and interesting and complicated lives happening.

On the story of inmate Adnan Khan, who hadn't seen his mother in 10 years and wasn't sure he'd remember how to hug her when she visited

Woods: Some people probably haven't seen their family members in 15, 20 years, you know? So going out there, figuring out what you want to do, that's kind of interesting, you know? Like, do I kiss her on the cheek? Do I kiss her on the forehead? Do I kiss her on the lips? I don't know. 'Cause you know, you out of touch in that sometimes. So hearing his story, it was interesting — you know, it makes you think about your relationship with your own mother.

Poor: We work really hard to set up an atmosphere of trust and comfort when we interview people. And we push people, too. I mean, we're not interested in pat stories with happy endings where people are just talking to us in a surface way. So we, I guess, demand a lot from the people we interview, and they trust us enough to respond in kind.

On the "Dirty Water" episode, in which they brought in a victim of child sex trafficking, Sara Kruzan, to talk to a prisoner who was convicted for (unrelated) child sex trafficking

Woods: I was at a symposium that a volunteer ... put together, and Sara Kruzan was in my group. And when she told her story, it was really powerful. And I just asked her, like, would you like to come in and talk about it? And we got to talking further, and we put together a little, pretty much, restorative justice with her and the other guy that's in the story.

It was just important just to get her in here to just talk with her, you know? And get her side of how she was brought up, and also, like I said, get the other guy's side, and put them together and try to create a conversation — start a conversation. ...

Poor: I think that it's important that we have true stories that come out — that we don't sugarcoat things — and that people take responsibility for the actions that got him here, or that got them here. And so for us, that story is a departure. But that is a big part about life inside prison. People need to talk about what got them, you know, the sentences that they got. And restorative justice symposiums happen here — I don't know on a regular basis, but they do happen here — and it's something that is a privilege to sit in on and see it working.

Woods: It's actually those type of situations where you're sitting across from a survivor of a crime and you're having this open dialogue that makes you change, you know? Sometimes you need to sit there, 'cause when you're just in society, you may not look at a person that you victimize as a person. You may just look at 'em as something else, or — for money reasons, or whatever the case may be. But to actually sit down with 'em and have a conversation, it opens you up. It change your perspective on things, you know? It really do.

On what they hope listeners will take away from the podcast

Woods: I believe that Ear Hustle can show people that individuals are not just sitting in prison just sitting around. Hopefully we'll continue to show that — show the experiences of guys inside, continue to tell the stories.

Poor: We hope that our stories are going to get people to think more clearly about crime and punishment and rehabilitation and what is the purpose of prisons and how can people who are incarcerated become contributing citizens and give back and continue to grow and challenge themselves so when they come back out to society, they're coming out ready to contribute and jump back in and change their lives.

Kat Lonsdorf and Connor Donevan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few years ago, Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods started a project - making a podcast about life in prison - for inmates by inmates.

NIGEL POOR: Our goal was to do a podcast that would be played on the closed-circuit station inside of the prison for the guys to hear.

SHAPIRO: That's Nigel. She's a visual artist who volunteers at San Quentin State Prison in California. Her podcast co-host, Earlonne, is serving a sentence of 31 years to life for attempted second-degree robbery. Their modest dream grew when they found out about a talent contest for new podcasts sponsored by the distributor Radiotopia. They entered. They won, and their podcast Ear Hustle became a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

POOR: Hey, E, tell everyone what ear hustling means.

EARLONNE WOODS: It means being nosey and eavesdropping.

POOR: And learning more about what actually happens inside a prison.

SHAPIRO: Working in a prison comes with a lot of obstacles. Their studio is an echoey concrete room with no phones and no Internet access. They deal with constant interruptions, even as they're talking to us.

POOR: Since we've never done this before, we didn't really know what you need. Somebody just walked in, too.

WOODS: Hey, Rafi (ph) - OK, right over there. Hey, Phil (ph), grab that keyboard up there...

POOR: Yeah, that's...

WOODS: ...That's on top of the...

POOR: So that's - yeah.

WOODS: That's cool.

POOR: That's another...

WOODS: That's - it's an example of what exactly...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I promise we didn't plan that. Ear Hustle is now in its second season, and with help from prison officials, we finagled a way to talk with Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods from inside that studio in San Quentin. I asked Nigel what she hopes listeners will get out of these real-life prison stories.

POOR: I think a lot of people - unless you're involved in the criminal justice system, the prisons are these invisible places, and we don't know what happens inside of them. And so hopefully our stories make human the people that are in here and the people that work here.

SHAPIRO: Season 2 begins with an episode about firsts in prison. And you talk to an inmate named Adnan Khan. He describes getting a visit from his mother for the first time in 10 years, and he tells you about how before he saw her, he didn't know if he remembered how to hug someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

ADNAN KHAN: So I didn't know if my hand goes around her shoulder or her neck. I didn't know if it went, like, diagonally like two 45-degree angles. And then I was like, you know what? I'll let her lead. Like, this is your mom, right? This is my mom, and I don't know how to hug my mom. So I was nervous about that type of stuff.

POOR: Did you actually practice hugging somebody else?

KHAN: No.

POOR: Just like an air - you did an air-hug.

KHAN: I - my cellie wasn't up for that, no. I did not. I just kind of, like, air-hugged myself. And I didn't know exactly - like, OK, what do you do, up? Is it down? Is it sideways? So, like, that's what I was nervous about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Earlonne, when you hear a story like that, do you think, wow, I had no idea that's what this person was dealing with, or do you think, yeah, that's life here?

WOODS: I think both because that is life here, you know? Some people probably haven't seen their family members in 15, 20 years, you know? So going out there, figuring out what you want to do - that's kind of interesting, you know? Like, do I kiss her on the cheek? Do I kiss her on the forehead? Do I kiss her on the lips? I don't know 'cause, you know, you out of touch in that sometimes. So, you know, hearing his story, it was interesting, you know? It makes you think about your relationship with your own mother.

POOR: We work really hard to set up an atmosphere of trust and comfort when we interview people, and we push people, too. I mean, we're not interested in pat stories with happy endings where people are just talking to us in a surface way. So we I guess demand a lot from the people we interview, and they trust us enough to respond in kind.

SHAPIRO: Honestly, the biggest thing that has surprised me listening to it is how rich prison life can be, from, you know, running marathons to various group meetings to all the, you know, various interpersonal dynamics that play, the food culture. Like, there's just so much to talk about.

WOODS: Oh, we haven't even gotten to, like, Shakespeare or artistic ensemble or...

(LAUGHTER)

WOODS: There's a lot we haven't even touched yet.

POOR: Yeah, there's so much happening here. And San Quentin is a little bit different in that it has a lot of programs for people to do. It has a lot of volunteers that come in, so it's a very active community. Someone asked us if we'd ever run out of stories, and I think it's going to be a long time because as you said, it's very active in here. There's very rich and interesting and complicated lives happening.

SHAPIRO: Season 2 is the first time that we hear from a woman and the first time we hear from a victim. Of course this is a challenge because we're talking about an all-male prison. And the woman we hear from is named Sara Kruzan, and she talks about being the victim of child sex trafficking.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

SARA KRUZAN: I was 11 years old, and there was an intention when he intentionally learned my routes and then came in as a father figure, developed a relationship with my mother, my mother being broken. So he knew that was a win.

SHAPIRO: She has a conversation with somebody who is serving a prison term for child sex trafficking, though he was not her trafficker. Up until that story, you had not focused a lot on the offenses that people committed. And in that one, you really do go into a lot of detail about the crimes. Do you think that changes the way listeners are going to perceive the inmates at San Quentin?

POOR: I think that it's important that we have true stories that come out, that we don't sugarcoat things and that people take responsibility for the actions that got him here or that got them here. And so for us, that story is a departure, but that is a big part of life inside prison. People need to talk about what got them - you know, the sentences that they got. And restorative justice symposiums happen here I don't know on a regular basis, but they do happen here. And it's something that, you know, is a privilege to sit in on and see it working.

SHAPIRO: Restorative justice, we should explain, is a scenario where victims and offenders talk to each other about the impact the action had on their lives.

WOODS: It's actually those type of situations where you're sitting across from a survivor of a crime and you're having this open dialogue that makes - it makes you change, you know? You sometime - you need to sit there because when you're in society, you may not look at a person that you victimized as a person. You may just look at them as something else or for money reasons or whatever the case may be. But to actually sit down with them and, you know, have a conversation - it opens you up. It just - it change your perspective on things, you know? It really do.

SHAPIRO: So you created this with the initial idea that it would be internal. And now the world has heard an entire first season, and you're on the second season. What do you hope people take away from it?

WOODS: I believe that Ear Hustle can show people that, you know, individuals are not just sitting in prison, just sitting around. Hopefully we'll continue to show that, show the experiences of guys inside, continue to tell the stories.

POOR: We hope that our stories are going to get people to think more clearly about crime and punishment and rehabilitation and what is the purpose of prisons and how can people who are incarcerated become contributing citizens and give back and continue to grow and challenge themselves so when they come back out to society, they're coming out ready to contribute and jump back in and change their lives.

SHAPIRO: Well, if we end with some music from one of the inmates, is there anything you'd like to request?

POOR: There's music everywhere here. Walking through the yard, you'll hear guys playing the saxophone. You'll hear them on guitar.

WOODS: But I'll go with Richie Morris singing his song from Quentin Blue...

POOR: Quentin Blue, yeah.

WOODS: ..."Wash My Hands."

POOR: You going to sing a little bit of that, Earlonne?

WOODS: (Singing) I wash my hands in dirty water.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASH MY HANDS")

RICHIE MORRIS: (Singing) I was my hands in dirty water. I guess this is what I get. It's raining from a clear, blue sky.

SHAPIRO: Well, Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, thank you so much for talking with us.

WOODS: Thank you.

POOR: Yeah, thank you.

WOODS: Appreciate you.

SHAPIRO: They're the co-hosts of the podcast Ear Hustle, now in its second season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASH MY HANDS")

MORRIS: (Singing) And yesterday...

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this story, we incorrectly refer to Radiotopia as a distributor of podcasts. It is, in fact, a podcast network from PRX. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.