Friday June 16, 2017

'Ear Hustle' podcast explores life inside San Quentin State Prison

(Radiotopia / PRX)

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When Eddie and Emile DeWeaver decided to become roommates, they figured it'd be a breeze — after all, they were brothers.

It turns out that in a small prison cell, a brotherly bond isn't always enough.

Emile couldn't tolerate Eddie's love of soap operas. Eddie was incensed by his brother's cigarette habit.

Within a few weeks of bunking up together at San Quentin State Prison in California, the pair were wondering if they might have made a mistake.

Eddie and Emile are among the inmates featured in the inaugural episode of Ear Hustle, a brand-new podcast on the Radiotopia network.

An introduction to the hosts of Ear Hustle2:29

The show, which launched on June 14, takes the 'true crime' genre made popular by podcasts like Serial one step further — by taking listeners inside the prison itself.

Two of Ear Hustle's co-producers, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, are inmates at San Quentin.

Nigel Poor

Nigel Poor is the co-creator, co-host and co-producer of Ear Hustle. (Radiotopia / PRX)

Along with podcast co-creator Nigel Poor, they're giving listeners a window into the realities of prison life.

"It's been absolutely amazing," Poor tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "I think the men are thrilled to know that their voices are getting out beyond the walls. There's a lot of pride in it."

Poor has been visiting San Quentin since 2011, when she became a volunteer teacher with the Prison University Project. In 2013, she started producing stories with inmates for a local radio show called Crosscurrents.

That's when she met Williams and Woods. A few years later, Ear Hustle was born.

Ear Hustle business card

Ear Hustle, produced out of California's San Quentin State Prison, is the newest podcast on the Radiotopia network. (Radiotopia / PRX)

            

'Inside' production

When it comes to navigating prison life, Williams and Woods are reliable guides.

Antwan Williams

Antwan Williams is the co-creator, co-producer and sound designer of Ear Hustle. (Radiotopia / PRX)

Williams, who is Ear Hustle's co-producer and sound designer, is currently 10 years into a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. Now 28 years old, he was incarcerated at 18.

Co-producer and co-host Woods, who is 45 years old, is serving a 31-years-to-life sentence for attempted robbery.

San Quentin is a medium-security prison, and the final destination for male death row inmates in California. But Poor says the podcast doesn't dwell much on inmates' crimes.

Earlonne Woods

Earlonne Woods is the co-creator, co-host and co-producer of Ear Hustle. (Radiotopia / PRX)

Instead, Ear Hustle operates very much in the present moment, focusing on the everyday occurrences — some difficult, some funny — that punctuate prison life. 

"A lot of the men that I work with have been incarcerated for a long time — 10, 15, 20 years," says Poor. "And they are very different people than they were."

Still, working in a prison does bring challenges, not least a complete lack of Internet access.

"We can't talk on the phone. We can't exchange things. We can't touch each other. And of course, dealing with prison politics can be complicated," says Poor. "But you can't give up, because otherwise you wouldn't get anything done."

"The men are thrilled to know that their voices are getting out beyond the walls." - Nigel Poor, Ear Hustle co-host and co-producer

Every episode of Ear Hustle has to be approved by San Quentin's Public Information Officer, Lt. Sam Robinson. Poor says he supports the project, and they have yet to be censored, but safety is always top of mind.

"Obviously we do have to think about our stories not getting people in trouble or causing issues between other inmates," she says. 

Ear Hustle story pitch session

Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods in a story pitch meeting at San Quentin State Prison. (Radiotopia / PRX)


     
Challenging stereotypes

Since it's difficult for Williams and Woods to conduct media interviews from prison, Poor has become Ear Hustle's de facto spokesperson. But she's quick to emphasize that the three co-producers are equal colleagues.

Both men were able to answer some questions for Day 6 through Poor, who recorded their answers during a prison visit on June 9.

"It mirrors life outside. There's many stresses —there's hilarious moments, there's moments of peace, there's moments of worry — it just takes place in a smaller world." - Antwan Williams, Ear Hustle co-producer and sound designer 

Asked what he's learned about prison life while producing Ear Hustle, Williams highlighted the normalcy of prison life.

"It mirrors life outside," he said. "There's many stresses — there's hilarious moments, there's moments of peace, there's moments of worry — it just takes place in a smaller world."

Poor echoes that sentiment.

"It's not like there are angry guys walking around with shivs. It's like a village where people are living, and wherever people live, they want to make their homes as comfortable and as safe as possible."

Woods agreed that prison life doesn't always fit the stereotypes.

"I believe that one of the key misconceptions is, 'people never change'," he said. "... I think people in society don't have a clue of all the great stuff that goes on inside a prison as far as rehabilitation ... and changing your mindset. I think people think we're always mad, we're always angry, we're always trying to pull off the latest crime or something like that. But I think people get in these institutions and they actually change."

Ear Hustle team in Upper Yard

From left: Antwan Williams, Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor in the Upper Yard at San Quentin State Prison. (Radiotopia / PRX)

     

The nuances of prison life

Each episode of Ear Hustle tackles a different theme, from finding a roommate to the long-term consequences of gang affiliation.

The show doesn't shy away from difficult stories, but it also embraces humour.

"I think people are surprised by that and they ask, 'are we making light of prison'," says Poor. "And we're not. I mean, we are recording how people live, and the feelings that they have, and the way that they react to things."

Some of the stories have been emotionally challenging for the team.

Woods recalls the story of an inmate named Curtis Roberts, who pleaded guilty after stealing two $20 bills from a cash register. He was sentenced to 50-years-to-life under California's Three Strikes Law.

"I think people think we're always mad, we're always angry, we're always trying to pull off the latest crime or something like that. But I think people get in these institutions and they actually change." - Earlonne Woods, Ear Hustle co-host and co-producer

According to Poor, Roberts lost all contact with his family after he was incarcerated and has struggled with violence in prison.

"The things that happened to him while he was in prison, that was one of those things where it was like, 'wow'," says Woods.

For her part, Poor hopes Ear Hustle will give people a new perspective on U.S. prison policies.

"I do hope that our podcast will spur people to think more creatively and more compassionately about rehabilitation," she says.

"We do really care about victims rights, and so I never want to make light of that. But I'm just hoping there can be attention brought to these really unreasonable sentences that are given out in the United States."

The next episode of Ear Hustle will be available for download on June 21.

To hear our full interview with Nigel Poor, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Annie Bender

This story was produced by Annie Bender, an associate producer at Day 6, and the producer of "Facing the Change." She's also worked with q, As it Happens, Cross-Country Checkup, CBC Arts and CBC KW's The Morning Edition.