True crime dominates my podcast listening. The Last Podcast on The Left maintains its foothold as #1 in my heart with their well researched (and hysterically conveyed) episodes covering everything from killers, historical tragedies, aliens, cryptids, magic, to paranormal activity. There is, however, a newer podcast to me that’s been in production since 2017. It’s significantly different than LPOTL in terms of both content and delivery, but impactful in ways I didn’t expect. I want to share it with you.
Ear Hustle is prison slang for eavesdropping. Listeners of this podcast essentially are “ear hustling” on the inmates of San Quentin State Prison, which overlooks the San Francisco Bay. The show is co-hosted by a long-time San Quentin volunteer and visual artist, Nigel Poor, and the *SPOILER ALERT* formerly incarcerated Earlonne Woods, who had his sentence commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in 2018 due to his work on the show, signs of reformation, and on recommendations from people like Nigel and Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s Public Information Officer. (Earlonne was sentenced to 31 years to life in 1999 for attempted robbery).
This podcast is profound, interesting, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. In the past, if I saw a prison-centric program on Netflix, I would just ignore it. Prison life has, thankfully, always been a far away, nebulous concept for me. I was fortunate to be born into an affluent life, where I had access to the resources needed to succeed. Besides, I used to think, “if they’re in prison they deserve to be there and are better off locked away forever”.
That is true. In some cases. Some people should be thrown into a cell for the remainder of their lives and deprived of basic human pleasures due to their heinous crimes. What I’ve learned from listening to Ear Hustle, though, is that some people can and do change for the better. Some make efforts to reform themselves and give back to the community, like Earlonne. I’ve also learned about cases where the punishment seems extreme for the crime.
One of the most poignant and unsettling shows is “Left Behind,” an episode dealing with California’s controversial three-strikes law. It focuses on an inmate named Curtis Roberts, who pleaded guilty to snatching $40 from a liquor store cash register and was sentenced to 50 years to life under three strikes. He’s been in prison 23 years for the nonviolent crime, and had pinned his hopes for parole on Proposition 66, a 2004 ballot measure that would have modified the law to allow early release for nonviolent offenders like him.Liberatore, P., & Marin Independent Journal. (2017, October 23). San Quentin inmates win raves with ‘Ear Hustle’ podcast about life in prison. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/23/san-quentin-inmates-win-raves-with-ear-hustle-podcast-about-life-in-prison/
The bottom line is that no matter what their crime and how disproportionate their sentencing, these inmates are still people and it’s very interesting to hear how they do or do not cope so well in the joint. Episode topics include dating inside, “cellies” (cellmates), music, and mail. Other, heavier episode topics include the Shu (solitary confinement), sex trafficking, and death row.
You may be surprised that a prison could produce a podcast from inside, but San Quentin State Prison is very progressive. Some inmates spend years trying to get transferred there due to the rehabilitation programs and workshops available to inmates. Still, it is a prison and necessity is truly the mother of invention. Inmates can get very creative with their food, art, activities, and making connections. What seems to tower over all prison life is respect. Respect is everything and from what I’ve gleaned, it seems that violence in prison tends to stem from perceived disrespect.
Ear Hustle has become an important find; I’ve learned a great deal and my perspective has changed. I’m also extraordinarily grateful not to be in prison! After hearing about all of the restrictions and the total lack of control, it’s no wonder that these inmates want to share their experiences. Ear Hustle has a message of hope and that progressive rehabilitation can help some people that perhaps were born into a life of crime, as you will find so many are.
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