Prison strips away the humanity of its residents. Prisoners lose the ability to vote and work like an average citizen, and finding help for any kind of health issues -- physical or mental -- can be hard. The media plays its part, too, by frequently presenting prisons as "human jungles" where the cruel and devious dominate. Desensitized by the portrayals of prison in movies and TV, we tend to focus on the abnormal, like shanks and "tossing salad," instead of realities such as high recidivism rates and the impacts of incarceration on families.
Ear Hustle, a new podcast from Radiotopia, provides the humane look at prison life we've been missing. Made by two inmates and a noted photographer, each episode addresses a side of prison life that doesn't get much attention. The first episode, released Wednesday, is all about cellmates, and the importance of finding the right person to share a 4-foot-by-9-foot cell with. When space is that cramped, even brothers have problems being around each other, as demonstrated by the show.
Before the release of the first episode, we emailed questions to Nigel Poor, who produces the podcast with San Quentin inmates Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods. A photography professor at California State University, Sacramento, Poor broke down how the podcast came together and why she began working with prisoners. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
What inspired you to start working with inmates at San Quentin?
My background is as a visual artist who investigates how people make a mark and leave behind evidence of their existence. I am interested in why and how we become the people we are and how we find meaning and connection.
I came to prison work as a volunteer professor teaching a history of photography class for the Prison University Project. I always knew that photography and talking about the inner meaning of images was a powerful bridge to connect people. Talking about photography with the men in my classes at San Quentin allowed us to speak on so many important subjects, and it made me realize how many important stories there were behind the prison walls. I wanted to dive into that and find a way to collaborate with men inside. That is what started my interest and led to the podcast.
I started teaching in San Quentin in 2011, and in late 2012 I began working with a group of men inside the San Quentin media lab producing radio stories about life inside prison. Originally, they were meant to just air on the prison’s closed-circuit station, but KALW heard about what we were doing and started airing the shows on their program Crosscurrents.
What limitations/barriers have you run into while trying to assist inmates in telling their stories?
Time, and the fact that prison is a very unpredictable place -- there can be lockdowns that occur and in that case the men are confined to their housing units, so we are not able to work. Also, everything inside prison takes time and there are all sorts of protocols that need to be followed. The administration’s first objective is to keep the prison safe, so our needs and deadlines are not a priority. We need to work within a complex framework. If you cannot be patient, persistent and polite you will not make it far as an outsider trying to work within the prison system.
How did you meet Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods? What made you want to work with them?
I met Antwan & Earlonne in 2012 when I started working on the San Quentin Prison Report. While working on the radio project I became interested in doing different kinds of stories that weren’t so news oriented. Earlonne and I started talking about doing a podcast that would allow us to work more like artists and less like journalists. Music was deeply important, we wanted to do work that used sound design and music, almost as a character in the story. So we asked Antwan to join us as the sound designer. We felt like a podcast allows us more freedom to work creatively, experiment with more impressionistic storytelling.
What do you see as the goal of the podcast? What made you want to pursue that goal?
I am interested in how people find meaning and purpose. It seems to me everyone has the ability to contribute and be a productive citizen. When I first started going inside I was struck not only by the number of men inside but also by the intelligence, ingenuity and passion to learn.
I am also an advocate for prison reform. To quote Antwan “If people don’t know exactly who it is that’s incarcerated -- if they don’t know people on a personal level -- it’s hard to care about the laws that dictate the lives in here.” It is my great hope that our podcast will be able to put a human face on those who are behind bars and through doing that be part of the very complicated conversation around prison reform.
And finally, for me a big part of wanting to do this project is to mirror the possibility that incarcerated and non-incarcerated people can work together as equal and professional colleagues. Earlonne, Antwan and I have an excellent working relationship -- we get along well, respect each other’s abilities and creative input and push each other to be better.
What should listeners expect with future episodes? What should they not expect?
Our stories concentrate on the everyday experience of people inside -- we are looking at complex issues through the smaller details of life.
Some stories we are working on:
Having pets in prison
Celebrating special occasions
The relationship between correctional officers and incarcerated men
Ministering on death row
How being in prison affects memory
We hope that our audience is varied and includes incarcerated people and their families, the formerly incarcerated, people interested in criminal justice issues, and those interested in stories about the complexity of being human. We are not a “true crime story” podcast, but we hope that people who are interested in that genre will tune in. We can offer a more nuanced view of those in the criminal justice system.
What have you learned from spending time in San Quentin?
I have spent the last 25 plus years working as a visual artist, trying to explore ideas through solo work in my studio. Coming together with the men inside San Quentin has been a powerful lesson in the importance of collaboration, negotiation and flexibility. As I said earlier, you cannot count on anything inside prison except the fact that most everything is out of one’s control; you always have to be ready to pivot. That leads to very creative problem-solving which feeds positively into everything one does in life.
On a deeper more human level, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a group of people who some years ago were only caricatures formed in my mind through bad films, TV and shoddy news coverage. I have had many assumptions challenged and have had to re-examine tough issues that I might have breezed by before. I believe it is important for us to live in a place of not knowing, to understand that it isn’t always good to hold on to beliefs too tightly. To grow and to contribute means to understand that no matter how old we are, we should always be in a place of learning.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.