You don’t eavesdrop when you’re in prison, you ear hustle. That makes it an apt phrase to borrow for the title of a podcast that lets you listen in on the lives of people doing time within the confines of San Quentin State Prison.
Ear Hustle, which starts its second season this week, is produced inside the California state prison by co-host Earlonne Woods, who is serving 31 years to life for attempted second-degree robbery, and co-host Nigel Poor, who has been volunteering at San Quentin since 2011, when she came to teach a history-of-photography class to the residents. A student asked her to help tell the story of life on the inside, and they, along with Antwan Williams, a convicted armed robber who helped create the show’s impeccable sound design, came up with the idea of a podcast.
Of course, none of them had any idea how to make one, but that didn’t stop them from giving it a go. They learned the art of audio storytelling together and submitted the results to Radiotopia’s Podquest contest, which looks for new shows to bring to the network. Ear Hustle won the contest in 2016, chosen from of a field of over 1,500 international entries.
The show is very personal, focusing on the inmates’ stories, and the small details of their lives in prison. Like the bittersweet story of two Odd Couple brothers who wound up sharing a cell in San Quentin, squabbling over smoking, deodorant, and the soap opera The Young and the Restless. Or an ex-Special Forces Marine spending 25 to life in San Quentin, who ended up terrified of a cellmate with the evocative nickname Duck. (Both stories are in the episode “Cellies“).
Inmates create every aspect of Ear Hustle, from reporting to producing to illustrating the episodes to making the music on the show. In a bonus episode, listeners are introduced to the artists who write songs like “Trying to Carrying On” and “Jingle Bell Rock San Quentin.” However because this is prison, Ear Hustle‘s website includes the disclaimer that “episodes are reviewed and approved by an official at San Quentin prior to release.” Lieutenant Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer, is involved in production and appears occasionally on the show, too (“To Catch A Kite“).
By using prisoners’ storytelling skills to lay bare what it’s like to spend decades behind bars, Ear Hustle shows that criminals are frequently funny, engaging, interesting human beings. And the show begets bigger questions: It’s hard to listen without thinking about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and racial injustice. That said, the podcast’s message is not overt or even necessarily the point. Mostly, it’s a group of guys with some free time on their hands and good, compelling stories to tell. And sometimes those stories are about the reality of dying in prison or what it’s really like to have a conjugal visit.
Ear Hustle returns for a second season on March 14, so now’s the perfect time to catch up and tune in.