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‘Ear Hustle’ Introduces Us to Seniors in the California Institution for Women

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two illustrations side by side. on the left side is a silhouette of a man wearing a beanie. The words, Ear Hustle, are displayed in yellow text on his shirt. On the right is a drawing of senior hands with handcuffs.
from right to left, Ear Hustle logo and artwork done in collaboration with San Quentin Prison Arts Project. (Illustration of hands by T. Rusty Nunes)

View the full episode transcript.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we’re taking some time to honor all the kinds of relationships that people have with their mothers. We’re especially thinking about those who are missing their mothers or mothers who are missing their children.

More than just thinking about them, we’re hearing from them. This week we’re passing the mic to our friends over at the podcast Ear Hustle, from PRX’s Radiotopia. It’s a special episode that highlights the stories of elderly mothers who are incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, a prison located in Chino, CA.

Their tales of aging behind bars while yearning for family are gut-wrenching but necessary. We can’t grow as a people unless we understand the plight of those on the margins of society. And when it comes to ensuring that we grow as a people, that’s something that mothers know best.

Happy Mother’s Day from the Rightnowish family!


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Pendarvis Harshaw, Rightnowish Host: Hey ya’ll, welcome to Rightnowish. I’m your host Pendarvis Harshaw. 

It’s Mother’s Day weekend, a day for celebration — and for some, a day that opens wounds. I want to give some love to those who have strained relationships or are missing their moms in one way or another. I’m also thinking about the mothers who are missing their children.

Today, we’re going to hear from some mothers who are incarcerated, particularly senior women with adult children. We’ll do that by passing the mic to our friends at Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, a podcast that shares the daily realities of life inside prison, from those living it.

In this episode, co-hosts Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor pay a visit to the senior center located at the California Institution for Women, and talk to residents about aging and navigating family relationships from within prison walls. 

A heavy, but much needed discussion, coming up right after this.

Nigel Poor, Ear Hustle Co-Host: I’m just going to describe the scene a little bit. There’s a big television on the wall. It  was probably about 54 inches and we’re watching PBS and there’s a woman stretching and Earlonne is really getting into it. He’s doing modern dance right now. 

Earlonne Woods, Ear Hustle Co-Host: Jeans, Nigel. These are not yoga pants. 

Nigel Poor: He’s still doing a really good job. And Bruce is even jumping in a little bit.  

Earlonne Woods: I can do that. 

[workout audio playing in the background] 

Earlonne Woods: This was at the California Institution for Women, a prison near LA where you and I have been spending a lot of time these days, Nyge. 

Nigel Poor: And we are in a room they call the Senior Center. But don’t think about some big fancy complex. It’s basically a large carpeted windowless room in a structure that is kind of like a double-wide trailer. 

Earlonne Woods: Right.  

Leslie: Where’s your rhythm? You done threw us off.

[background chattering]  

Earlonne Woods: She’s going there.  

Leslie: I got a bad knee and a replaced knee now, y’all. [laughter]  

Nigel Poor: You know how they always tell us we have to keep our distance inside prison?  

Earlonne Woods: Mm-hmm.  

Nigel Poor: I loved how we could just kind of let our guard down a little bit. It was really fun to kick back and try to keep up with those ladies.  

Earlonne Woods: Yeah, I felt like I got my workout in for the day.  

Nigel Poor: [chuckles]  

Earlonne Woods: I feel it. I definitely feel it. I feel stretched.  

Nigel Poor: I’m putting my shoes back on.  

Earlonne Woods: Wait a minute. Hold on. What you mean you putting your shoes back on? Nigel,  we only two minutes into this. Leslie’s still going.  

Nigel Poor: I know. She’s good. 

Leslie: Are you done? 

Earlonne Woods: Our friend, Leslie, is kind of the ringleader here at the Senior Center, which come to think of it, just got a rebranding.  

Nigel Poor: Yes, it did. So right now, we are in the She Shed, which I like better than the Senior  Center, I have to say.  

Leslie: Yeah, it’s kind of fun. We’ll see how it goes over.  

Nigel Poor: Yeah. It brings up conversation when you say it.  

Leslie: Yeah. 

Earlonne Woods: You know, Nyge, with all the time that they give you in California, the prison population is kind of old. 

Nigel Poor: It’s aging. 

Earlonne Woods: There are segments that are and have been there for a long time.  

Nigel Poor: Definitely. And Leslie is part of that. She’s been in prison, I mean, since her 20s. 

Earlonne Woods: Yeah, 19. So, her idea for the Senior Center was, how can we make prison more  accommodating for old people? 

Nigel Poor: So, Leslie convinced the prison to open up this room, and she got some boardgames  and some greenery and lamps and started getting the word out.  

Leslie: At first, I thought I would be like Julie from The Love Boat, create these programs,  social director and all this. But it’s been a long, slow process of getting people curious and  interested. At first, there was, I think, a feeling that this was a Band-Aid on an ongoing  problem of the aging population, and so they weren’t going to come. 

Nigel Poor: Were people angry at you or resentful that you were wanting to spearhead this? 

Leslie: I don’t think that– it could have been, and I missed it, but I think it was just more  angry that they’re still incarcerated.  

[pensive music] 

Leslie: We can’t do much about the diet, but we can stay in mental shape and physical and spiritual.  This is hopefully more of a holistic thing to stay sharp and good and also being recognized,  because I don’t think people are aware that there’s so many women over 60 incarcerated.  

Gladys Ortiz: My name is Gladys Ortiz. 

Nigel Poor: What do you love about the Senior Center? 

Gladys Ortiz: There’s so much to do there. Yeah, and you get to socialize with people your age.

Earlonne Woods: How long have you been incarcerated?  

Gladys Ortiz: Seven.  

Earlonne Woods: And what is your sentence? 

 

Gladys Ortiz: I got 15 years.  

Nigel Poor: Okay. How old were you when you came to prison? 

Gladys Ortiz: 60 years old.  

Nigel Poor: Had you ever been to prison before? 

Gladys Ortiz: Never. It’s a little embarrassing too, because I have my grown children who now  have to learn how to maneuver prison. And then, I learned about 50-minute phone calls. I  never thought I’d be here. Never. It’s like, wow. None of my friends back home– I’ve  disappeared, I’ve just fallen off the face of the earth. Nobody knows I’m here. 

Nigel Poor: What do they think happened to you?  

Gladys Ortiz: I don’t know.  

Nigel Poor: These older women, you don’t really see them when you’re walking around the main  part of the prison. 

Earlonne Woods: Nah, they don’t hang out like that. They probably spend a lot of their time in the  cell.  

Nigel Poor: So, it’s actually cool when you get to the Senior Center and it’s a place just for them.  

Earlonne Woods: Yep. It’s a cubbyhole, you know what I’m saying? They get to go hang out. They  got air conditioning and you definitely need that in that part of California. 

Nigel Poor: You definitely want air conditioning. So, I think that makes it attractive. But it’s open  every day and they have so many activities, like the exercising. They have different people  coming in to give talks. And once a week, I think at least once a week, they show movies. 

Earlonne Woods: Have you all seen The Notebook?  

Female Speaker: Yeah. 

Leslie: Oh, yeah. 

Nigel Poor: What do you think of it? 

Leslie: I wasn’t into it. 

Nigel Poor: Men love this movie and women are like, “Really?” Oh, wait a minute. You said you  loved it? 

Female Speaker: Yes, I loved it.  

Nigel Poor: Oh, okay. I take back what I said.  

[laughter]  

Female Speaker: I thought it was interesting and educational for people who’ve never had  an instance to recognize Alzheimer’s.


Nigel Poor: Earlonne I love this. Men see The Notebook as a romance movie, and women, at  least here at the Senior Center, see it as an Alzheimer’s movie. 

Female Speaker: Okay. It’s quite a distressing disease, not only for the person suffering, but  for all of the family as well. 

Nigel Poor: So, you were more drawn to it because of that, not because of the romance?  

Female Speaker: Oh, not the romance. [laughs] I want you to see how they portray the  Alzheimer’s.  

Leslie: The romance seemed a little corny.  

Nigel Poor: I just have to say this, I’ve never met so many men in my life that cried over this  movie than at San Quentin. Even this dude got all teary about it. 

Earlonne Woods: Did I? 

Leslie: Oh, we need to rewatch it and think about that. 

Nigel Poor: You told me you did, you find it very emotional. 

Earlonne Woods: It was a cool story.  

So, one of the most popular things to do in this little area are these bicycles.
Nigel Poor: Really? Bicycles? 

Earlonne Woods: I mean well, they’re like miniatures.  

Nigel Poor: They’re like little pedals on the ground. 

Earlonne Woods: Pedals, sprockets.  

Nigel Poor: So, after the stretching, I think we wanted to redeem ourselves, so we both sat down  and started pedaling.  

Earlonne Woods: I’m Earlonne Woods.  

Nigel Poor: I’m Nigel. Nigel Poor.  

LaVelma: Nigel. Earlonne. And? 

Bruce: Bruce.  

LaVelma Byrd: Bruce. LaVelma Byrd. Yes, thank you. Pleased to meet you all.  

Earlonne Woods: How long have you been here, LaVelma? 

LaVelma: Well, 29 years.  

Nigel Poor: What are you doing right now. 

LaVelma Byrd: You seen that little thing on TV where people sit in their chair and work their legs?  That’s what this is. 


Nigel Poor: It’s like a bike. A little bike. And are you a senior? 

LaVelma Byrd: I’m 72. 

Nigel Poor: 72, okay. What is this? 

LaVelma Byrd: Because I have arthritis in both of my hands and the bouncing, I made this little  soft cushion for my hands when I’m walking with my walker. 

Nigel Poor: Do you remember LaVelma and her walker? 

Earlonne Woods: Yeah, yeah. 

Nigel Poor: It was all decked out. She’d done all this handiwork crocheting to make the handles  softer and give it some personality.  

Earlonne Woods: Yeah, she was cool.  

Nigel Poor: Do you find that do you stay separate from the younger people?  

LaVelma Byrd: As much as possible. [laughs] I’m going to be totally honest. 

Earlonne Woods: Are they bullies, or they just have a different way? 

LaVelma Byrd: Yes.  

Nigel Poor: Do you think it would be a good idea to have younger people house separately?  

LaVelma Byrd: Yes, ma’am.  

Nigel Poor: Yeah.  

LaVelma Byrd: And some of the old rowdy ones too.  

[laughter]  

LaVelma Byrd: Don’t leave them out. There’s a few of them too. They’re up in age. They should  know better.  

Earlonne Woods: When you stepped in here 29 years ago, how was you moving? 

LaVelma Byrd: Oh, I was out working out every day. I was running 30 laps around the track every  day. I was in good shape when I came here. But now, gravity and everything else have  caught up with me. [laughs] 

Christine: I’m Ms. Christine. We started calling each other– the older people started calling  us by our first names, but we say Miss. So, Ms. Lainey, Ms. Candice, Ms. Christine, Ms. Leslie.  

Leslie: I didn’t know that. 

[laughter] 

Nigel Poor: You remember Christine, right?

Earlonne Woods: Yep. 

Nigel Poor: She definitely spends a lot of time down the Senior Center. And she had that beautiful  long 

Earlonne Woods: Braid.  

Nigel Poor: -silver braid. And she’s the type of person that likes to sit against the wall and kind of  take in the whole scene, makes sure she knows everything that’s happening down there.  

Christine: I’ve been here four years and was three years in Chowchilla, so I haven’t been  here as long as some people. I came to prison when I was 72. Not all of us are lifelong  criminals. And speaking for myself, most of my friends have been teachers and nurses and  lawyers, and one is a doctor. And we are not lifelong criminals, and we’d really prefer not to  be around criminal activity in prison. 

I know I’m a criminal. I did commit a crime when I was 71. But as a person, I am not a  criminal. I’ve not ever led a criminal lifestyle. I was never arrested before. And many of these  older people are in the same boat that I’m in. 

Earlonne Woods: It took 71 years to commit a crime? 

Christine: Yes. Alcohol and a loaded gun, and one second, and now I’m a criminal for the  rest of my life. But I’m not asking for sympathy. I know that’s what happened, and I know that  I’m here. I just would prefer while in prison not to be around people who led a criminal  lifestyle.  

Nigel Poor: Now, we don’t normally do this, but you brought it up. Can we ask you what your  crime was?  

Christine: Yes. I killed someone when I was drunk and a loaded gun was there. I am here  for first-degree murder, and not only first degree, but also gun enhancement, which means  that I’ll never get out.  

Nigel Poor: And who did you kill?  

Christine: I killed a close relative.  

Nigel Poor: So, what we really wanted to talk to you about is what is it like, as you were saying, to  come to prison at 71 when you’ve lived a long, professional life? I believe you were– 

Christine: I was a retired nurse.  

Nigel Poor: And how does someone adjust?  

Christine: It’s a rude shock. [chuckles] It’s a very rude shock. 

Nigel Poor: Yeah. I mean, did you ever see this in your future? 

Christine: No. I never thought about prison. I never considered prison. It was totally not in  my world. I always thought that really, really bad, hardened people who had committed  terrible crimes went to prison, obviously. 

Nigel Poor: Tell us, what is it like when you’re 71 to walk into a prison? 

Christine: They gave me an upper bunk, first of all, which it was hard. It was hard because I  have to get up and pee during the night. So, it means you have to come down carefully, get  to the bathroom, get up carefully without waking anybody up and all that a couple of times a  night. It was very difficult. I was put in with people that fought in the room, had fights with  each other, girlfriends, always these jealousy fights and blood, women having sex with each  other in the shower or over to the side of me. And I got used to all of that. But people being  up all night because they were tweaking and they were up all night making noise, and I  couldn’t sleep.  

I moved into a room with this couple, and they liked to play the radio really loud, and it was  rap music. And I asked them one day if they would turn it down, and they just turned on me  [chuckles] like wild beasts. And they told me, “Get out of the room.” And I got out of the room  for a while. But you can absolutely not tell anybody in the room in Chowchilla what kind of  noise they can make or can’t make. That’s a huge issue. I had no clout at all. I had no clout. I  had nothing. I didn’t sell drugs. I didn’t have any stature there at all. So I was like at the  bottom of the heap.  

Earlonne Woods: You were just an old person in prison. 

Christine: I was an old person without a whole lot to offer. And I wasn’t even an interesting  old person that could do drugs or something or that had anything going for me in prison at  all. I didn’t have anything.  

Lanie: My name’s Lanie. 

Nigel Poor: How long have you been in prison? 

Lanie: Since 1988. I’m sorry I have a new partial– [laughs] and I’m having a hard time in  case I sound a little old lady stuff.  

Earlonne Woods: Lanie came in, she had those bright eyes with the short hairstyle, and she was  very engaging.  

Nigel Poor: Yeah. I mean, I found her proper. I don’t know what else to say. Hospitable. And she  seemed to me like a character out of a southern novel. 

Earlonne Woods: Kentucky Derby. 

Nigel Poor: Maybe, with the hat and the gloves. 

Earlonne Woods: The hat and the gloves. Betting on horses. 

Nigel Poor: Ooh. 

[laughter]  

Nigel Poor: How old are you?  

Lanie: I’m 76 now. I was 41 then. 

Earlonne Woods: What’s your sentence?  

Lanie: LWOP.

Earlonne Woods: LWOP stands for life without parole. Most people say life without the possibility of  parole, but it’s life without parole. 

Nigel Poor: Right. And considering that’s what she’s dealing with, there’s a lot more going on with  her beyond this proper southern lady description we gave. 

Earlonne Woods: Oh, definitely. 

What is the Senior Center about? 

Lanie: When it first opened, I wasn’t real impressed because I thought it was just a way for  them to say they did something for us when we’re really used to being invisible. 

Nigel Poor: When you say invisible, do you mean being someone who’s in prison or being a  woman, being someone who’s older? 

Lanie: Being elderly. 

Nigel Poor: Can you talk about that invisibility? 

Lanie: This is set up for young people, basically. Even at 50, I felt young. You can do it. You  can keep up with the program. You can hustle. You just keep the pace. It’s a fast pace. And  at 76, I don’t care how hard you try, and I’ve got two hip replacements and deteriorating  bones. You can’t keep the pace anymore. You just can’t. The getting up, even getting ready  and getting out the door, it’s a challenge. Or to get to the shower and to have to use a  particular shower because another shower is slippery and you might fall. There are struggles  everywhere. I don’t want to go around saying, “I can’t do this,” or, “I can’t do that.” I got the  cane and I won’t make it. The grace of God, I’m going to be okay. But it makes it so much  more difficult.  

We have a lot of people here now who are over 70, 75, 80 years old, and I don’t think they’ve  ever had this kind of accumulation of elderly before. 

Nigel Poor: So, when you came in at 41, is that what you said, were there elderly women? 
Lanie: Very, very few.  

Nigel Poor: And do you remember seeing any older women– 

Lanie: Oh, yes. 

Nigel Poor: And what did you think when–? 

Lanie: Oh, my heart went out to them because I had wonderful relationships with my  grandparents. And so, you try to help them.  

Nigel Poor: But when you saw them, did it worry you, like, “Oh, my God, that could be me one  day”? 

Lanie: I never thought that this would last that long. 

Earlonne Woods: When I first came into the women’s prison, I was thrown by seeing older women  in prison. It wasn’t even in my mindset. I didn’t even think older women would be in prison.  And I spent a long time in men prison. I’m used to seeing older men, and when I seen it, I  was like, “Damn.” I don’t know, that was one of them days you just left depleted. 

Lanie: Are there a lot of older men in prison?  

Nigel Poor: Yes. Earlonne and I have talked about this a lot. We find it way harder to see older  women in prison. I don’t think about it when I’m at a men’s prison and there’s plenty of old  men there. Why do you think it’s so much harder for us to see older women in prison? Like  you said, it’s draining. It is really heavy.  

Lanie: Well, that’s a good question. And it’s interesting because to me, it would be sad to  see older men too. It’s sad with women because the saddest thing for me is family. I’ll start  crying if I talk about it, so I’d rather not. 

Nigel Poor: Yeah, but why do you think it affects us so much? 

Lanie: Well, because we’re maternal. Mothers are not meant to make mistakes and commit  crimes and come to prison. We’re just not. And I hate the fact that I did this to my family. 

Nigel Poor: I feel like older women are not supposed to be in prison, and I’m trying to figure out  why I don’t have that feeling about older men. You know what I mean? It’s very hard for me  to separate my heart feeling.  

Lanie: Were you very close to your mother? 

Nigel Poor: I’m very close to my mother. 

Lanie: I think, like I said before, we’re all a product of our environment. Just like me, I had a  great relationship, as I said, not only with my grandparents, but with my mother. So, when I  would see these elderly ladies in prison when I first came, I’d make their beds, I’d do their  laundry, anything I could to help them. 

Nigel Poor: Your supposition is that the three of us have very close relationships with older  women in our lives, or did. 

Lanie: Maybe if not even with your inner family, with someone older that influenced your life. 

Nigel Poor: But now, I’m smiling because what does that say about what we think about men? 

Lanie: Well, did you have a great relationship with your father? [laughs] 

Nigel Poor: I have very different feelings about men than I have about women. And now, I’m  wondering– [crosstalk]  

Lanie: And I do too.  

Nigel Poor: Thank you for that revelation.  

[chuckles]  

Lanie: And I’m ready for the hereafter.  

Nigel Poor: You are? 

Lanie: Yes. 

Nigel Poor: How so? 

Lanie: Well, I believe I’m going to heaven. I believe in heaven. I don’t have a real close  personal relationship with my grandchildren because my son was raised coming to prison to  see mom. He was only six at the time. And he has decided he doesn’t want his children to  know that I’m in prison. And I have to respect that. My son and I talk a couple of times a  week, and I get tons and tons of pictures and videos and everything of the kids, but we tiptoe  around it, and it’s heartbreaking. My daughter-in-law is a schoolteacher, and she’s  wonderful. But she was trying to get him to go to a funeral one day. He who’s usually very  accommodating and kind, said, “I’m not going to any funerals. I live with the death that never  ends.” Meaning I can’t take anymore. He’s very emotional. And so, I think once I’m gone I’m  gone, and he don’t have to continue living the death that never ends. “My mom’s gone, and  she can’t come home.” 

Nigel Poor: Yeah.  

Lanie: So, it’s heavy. It’s heavy aging in prison and not just dealing with it myself but trying  to help others to deal with it. My family, especially my child. 

Nigel Poor: Yeah.  

Lanie: The heartache never ends. You accept it, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.

Nigel Poor: Yeah.

 

Pendarvis Harshaw, Rightnowish Host: That was an excerpt from Radiotopia’s podcast, Ear Hustle. To listen to the rest of this episode look up “Ep 94: Once You’re in the Ocean, You’re Going Everywhere” on ear hustlesq.com. To hear other Ear Hustle episodes- they have 13 seasons so plenty to immerse yourself in- find them on your favorite podcast app. 

Big ups to their team! Ear Hustle is produced by Nigel Poor, Earlonne Woods, Amy Standen, Bruce Wallace, and Rahsaan “New York”  Thomas. Shabnam Sigman is the managing producer. The producing team inside San Quentin includes Steve Brooks, Derrell Sadiq Davis, Tony de Trinidad, Tam Nguyen and Tony Tafoya. Earlonne Woods sound designs and engineers the show with help from Fernando Arruda and Derrell Sadiq Davis. 

This episode was made possible by The Just Trust, working to amplify the voices, vision and  power of communities that are transforming the justice system. 

Thanks y’all. Love on your people. Peace.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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