Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts highlighting the lessons we learned about designing better government Code for America Summit 2019.

Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor are the co-creators of Ear Hustle, a podcast about the daily realities of life inside prison, as well as stories from the outside, post-incarceration. They took the stage (with moderator Sarah Shourd) at this year’s Code for America Summit to speak about the experience of living life inside a government service.

“Everybody wants a life that has purpose, wants to feel like you're doing something with whatever time you have on this earth.”
Earlonne Woods

The justice system is an arm of government with a very long reach. But what many of us don’t see is how deep it reaches into the lives of the 2 million Americans currently incarcerated and many millions more who have gone through the county’s prison systems.

At Summit, Earlonne and Nigel spoke about the way they escort listeners into a prison through the podcast—with Earlonne as the host from the inside, and Nigel from the outside. Last year, after serving 21 years out of a 31-year sentence, Earlonne’s sentence was commuted by former California Governor Jerry Brown, so he brings his new, post-incarceration perspective to the just-launched season 4 of Ear Hustle. But the core of the podcast stays the same: surfacing and elevating the deeply human stories of the millions of Americans whose lives have been touched by the prison system.

“Connecting with people is a human directive.”
Nigel Poor

Many Americans often think of government services as something we have to occasionally interact with, like the DMV or the post office. Through Ear Hustle, we hear another side: about how people live their lives inside a government service, all day, every day.

To hear the full Ear Hustle keynote, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Transcript

Sarah Shourd:

All right. Hi, everyone. Welcome. We're here to have a conversation today, get to know each other a little better.

Earlonne Woods:

Indeed.

Sarah Shourd:

I want to introduce Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-hosts and creators of an amazing podcast called Ear Hustle.

Earlonne Woods:

That's what's up.

Sarah Shourd:

It's a critically-acclaimed podcast that's won all kinds of awards, and it's really looking at the daily life of some of the over two million people that are incarcerated in our country; what their experience is like inside, and then what their experience is like post-incarceration. So if you haven't checked it out yet, definitely check it out. It's hilarious, poignant. There's stories from how prisoners make pets in their cells that can be hilarious and also really profound, and really, really deep and difficult and moving stuff that is important for all of us to know about in the outside; like what it's like to lose a child when you're incarcerated. So definitely check it out.

Sarah Shourd:

I want to start by asking you, Earlonne, why Ear Hustle. What's the name mean?

Earlonne Woods:

Ear Hustle. So the name Ear Hustle means, pretty much, eavesdropping in on someone else's conversation. And a lot of people do a lot of that in prison.

Nigel Poor:

Yes.

Sarah Shourd:

And Nigel, can you explain to us a little bit the genesis of the project? How did it start? How'd you guys meet?

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, definitely. I just want to comment on one thing you said about it being hilarious. And I'm actually glad that you opened with that, because one of the things the podcast tries to do is talk about how life on the inside has a lot of connections to life on the outside. And people who don't have experience in prison seem to expect that everything inside is only depressing; that it's one emotional note. And we really like to forefront that life inside is as complicated as it is outside, and that includes humor and things that are difficult. So thank you for doing that.

Nigel Poor:

So Ear Hustle came out of a project that Earlonne and I were working on, a radio project, inside San Quentin. San Quentin has a media lab that hosts a newspaper, a radio program, video, and now, a podcast. So in 2013, Earlonne, we started working together?

Earlonne Woods:

'12.

Nigel Poor:

2012. On the radio program. We did that for a couple years. And we both found that we wanted to do something a little bit different than traditional journalism; something that was more from the perspective of an artist, something that would allow us to use more complicated sound design. And so we just plotted the idea of a podcast. We got permission from the prison, and then we entered a podcast contest that was put out by Radiotopia.

Earlonne Woods:

Podquest.

Nigel Poor:

And you like to tell this part.

Earlonne Woods:

So we entered a contest called Podquest that was hosted by Radiotopia from PRX. And out of 1,537 other teams out in 53 different countries, we ended up winning. And by-

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

Oh, thank you! And when we won, I think the prison was like, "Oh, we really got to do this, now."

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

You know?

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, I think we all felt that way, because Earlonne and I hadn't done a podcast. And exactly when we won, we're like, "Oh, dang. We got to figure out how to make a podcast, now."

Earlonne Woods:

Oh, yeah. We didn't know how to do podcasts either, at the time. So-

Nigel Poor:

Remember, you thought it was easy.

Earlonne Woods:

We only had one minute ... No, a two-minute promo everybody had to do. So two minutes wasn't too much.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Sarah Shourd:

And how many people are on your team? Because I have some experience with podcasting, myself. And most people think, "Oh, you just record it and you put it up."

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Sarah Shourd:

But I mean, podcasters don't sleep.

Earlonne Woods:

Which is what I thought.

Sarah Shourd:

It's a tremendous amount of work.

Nigel Poor:

That's true. No, we do not sleep. Earlonne and I are the co-creators and the co-producers. But inside, we have Antwan Williams, who works on music-

Earlonne Woods:

David Jassy.

Nigel Poor:

David Jassy. So there's about four guys inside.

Earlonne Woods:

Pat Mesiti-Miller.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah. And then some outside people. But the whole team, between inside and outside people is about eight people, now.

Earlonne Woods:

About eight people. Curtis Fox, Julie Shapiro.

Nigel Poor:

Okay, yeah.

Sarah Shourd:

Amazing.

Earlonne Woods:

Erin Wade, everybody.

Sarah Shourd:

Amazing.

Earlonne Woods:

Yeah.

Sarah Shourd:

Well, it's incredible. So Earlonne, late last year, your sentence was commuted by Governor Brown, after serving 21 of 31 years that you were sentenced to for armed robbery. Not armed robbery, I'm sorry.

Earlonne Woods:

Attempted.

Sarah Shourd:

Attempted robbery.

Earlonne Woods:

Yes.

Sarah Shourd:

Attempted robbery. Attempted is a very important word. So first of all, I want to congratulate you on your freedom.

Earlonne Woods:

Thank you, appreciate it. And of course, I wanna say the honorable Governor Jerry Brown. That's my favorite dude, right there.

Sarah Shourd:

Words are important.

Earlonne Woods:

Indeed.

Sarah Shourd:

And I also just want to say that it gives me great shame to think that I live in a state that would hold someone for 21 years for something as small as an attempted robbery. I'm glad you've been given a second chance, and I wish you'd been given a second chance a long time ago.

Earlonne Woods:

Indeed, thank you. Thank you. It's a lot of people still in there, stuck, so.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

You know?

Sarah Shourd:

Can you tell us a little bit about how freedom has been? And how is this going to change Ear Hustle, to have you on the outside?

Earlonne Woods:

So I've learned that, of course, freedom is not free. Everything up here's expensive, so that's what I am learning. But it's been a ... Getting out of prison, having a job, having a place to stay, having transportation has really helped me a lot. You know what I mean? I think the one thing is just having a job. So having a job takes you out of a lot of different situations, and it focuses your time on something. So for me, honestly, it's been ... I've been out, I think, six months, and it's been all work.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah. Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

A lot of work.

Nigel Poor:

Welcome to podcasting.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah. Well, so we're going to cue up a clip from Ear Hustle for everyone to listen to. We're ready for that clip, now.

Nigel Poor:

Your story's really different, but you also got a long sentence under the three strikes law.

Earlonne Woods:

Yeah.

Nigel Poor:

31 years to life.

Earlonne Woods:

Right.

Nigel Poor:

Do you remember what was going through your mind when you first heard your sentence?

Earlonne Woods:

What the ... ? That's what was going through my mind. You know? You start to think the worst thoughts. You know, your mind gets to thinking like, "Man, this system is racist. It's unjust." You know? I didn't even know I was a three strike candidate. You're thinking the system is against you. That's what you're thinking, like "Oh, they fucking me."

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, I don't even know how you can take it in.

Earlonne Woods:

I'll tell you what: Let's go back to the yard and talk to some other three strikers about this.

Earlonne Woods:

Do you remember what was going through your mind when you first learned of your sentence?

Speaker 4:

Praying, hurting, crying.

Speaker 5:

I cried.

Speaker 6:

I couldn't critically think. I couldn't process anything. I was just overwhelmed for a year and a half later.

Speaker 7:

At first, I was in denial. I was thinking, "No, there's no way they're going to give me a life sentence at 21." And when the judge slammed the gavel down and I said, "I'm sentencing you to life in prison," and I was just like, "Wow." It just totally dumbfounded me.

Speaker 8:

I went blank.

Earlonne Woods:

Do you remember what was going through your mind when they first sentenced you?

Speaker 9:

Life's over. It don't matter no more. And I quit caring.

Earlonne Woods:

Life may be over. But here's what may be worse: You still have to keep on living. And to live in this environment, you got to have some hope that you're going to get through it. It's up to each prisoner to find their own reasons to keep going.

Earlonne Woods:

Back to Curtis.

Curtis Fox:

Well, you know, when I came to prison, the goal I set for myself was not to make it out alive. That wasn't the goal. The goal was that I didn't lose myself in the process. And I remember when I was going through my reception process at Tehachapi prison, and the whites came to me and they wanted to put a knife in my hand and told me to go stab a child molester. And they said, "You know, you got to do this. You got to prove yourself."

Curtis Fox:

You know, I didn't come in here stabbing child molesters. I didn't come in here being a gang banger or a thug. I'm a stupid idiot that stole some money. I'm just not going to pick up a knife and go stab somebody. And I would rather die than lose my integrity.

Sarah Shourd:

Wow.

Earlonne Woods:

Indeed.

Sarah Shourd:

That's a really powerful clip.

Nigel Poor:

Can I say a few things about that clip? One of the things about that clip is that it highlights three things that we do in the podcast. The first is that a big part of it is the relationship that Earlonne and I have, and the ability to escort people into the prison. Earlonne is the insider, and myself is the outsider. So we get to ask each other questions and challenge each other on different topics. Then we do something that's called yard talk, where we go out into the yard in the prison. You can see a ... Well, I guess it's not up anymore. We have permission to go out there with microphones and recorders, and we do kind of person-on-the-street interviews, where we get as many voices as possible to be part of the podcast. And in that case, we were asking different people to tell us their sentence. And then the third really important part is the first-person narrative, and that story revolves around a guy named Curtis Roberts, who was serving 55 years to life?

Earlonne Woods:

50 years, yeah.

Nigel Poor:

For three strikes, and his third strike was stealing $40 out of a cash register. And he served how many years before he got out?

Earlonne Woods:

24 years before his sentence was commuted, as well.

Nigel Poor:

24. Yeah. So those are the three key ingredients for putting the podcast together.

Sarah Shourd:

Amazing, yeah. That clip really strikes me, because it talks about how people that don't have any, necessarily, rational reason to feel hopefully, absolutely have to find hope. That quote about how the man that you interviewed said he didn't even know if he would get out, but he knew that he wouldn't let the place change him.

Earlonne Woods:

Right.

Sarah Shourd:

And for a long time, you didn't know if you would get out, Earlonne. Right?

Earlonne Woods:

Right, right.

Sarah Shourd:

For the rest of your incarceration. So how did you find that in yourself, and what did that look like for you? And how does that relate to the podcast, if it does?

Earlonne Woods:

Well, I'll say this: When you're in prison; yeah, it's a crazy, chaotic environment. But the one thing I held onto was I was going to live my life to the best of my ability everyday, no matter where I was at because I know that the next hour, the next day is not promised to me. So I personally was like, "I'm going to live my life." You know? And there's a lot of people in there like me, getting out by the governor. Or, rather, I would've went to the board in 2028. And that's just going in front of a board of prison terms to see if they're going to let me out. It's not promised that I'll get out that day. I could get out ... When you have to life, that means exactly to life. You know? So I could've stayed in there for the rest of my life. And under the three strikes law, a lot of people may hear 25 to life, three strikes, you're out. But there's dudes in there with 200 years, 300 years, 400 years, to life. And that's how they were sentenced. And the crime could just be robbery. You know? It could be DUI. It could be anything.

Sarah Shourd:

Right. Yeah, it's kind of amazing. That clip and the podcast, as a whole, really speaks to, how can we look at our system of incarceration as something that could benefit people? Is that even possible, that it could be a service that helps society rehabilitate people and help them reenter the world with more resources and more ability to deal with the problems of everyday life? Of course, the opposite is true in most cases. What do you see as some of the stories that you've heard; what do you see as giving people inside incentive to become their best selves, to continue to engage with society in a positive way?

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, I think beyond the podcast, one of the things that's very interesting about San Quentin, as a specific prison, and again, this applies to San Quentin, not across the board; is that there's so many programs that happen inside. There's something like 3,000 volunteers that go in now, the prison, every year. And so there's a sense that there is a connection between the people inside the prison and the people outside, and that we're able to establish professional relationships. And I think everybody, no matter who you are, wants a life that has purpose, wants to feel like you're doing something with whatever time you have on this earth. And so for me, that's where I think inspiration comes for the guys inside, and also for the people working inside.

Nigel Poor:

The other thing that's podcast-specific that I think is inspiring is that a lot of the guys in there tell us that their family members, their daughters, their cousins, listen to Ear Hustle and contact them and say, "God, I have such a better idea of what happens in your life, now." So it has this connective possibility. And I think that's also inspiring, because connecting with people is another human directive, I believe.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah. Exactly. And laws that are still on the books, Draconian laws like the three strikes law, that can land you in prison for the rest of your life for non-violent offenses doesn't help anyone have any kind of incentive to improve their lives.

Earlonne Woods:

Right. I mean, you know, I think with the three strikes law, the main intent is to incapacitate you.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

You know? And there technically is no rehabilitation in the law itself. But you know, a lot of people that are incarcerated take it upon themselves to do it, but you do still have laws like that on the books. And hopefully me being out here, hopefully can gather the support to abolish that law.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

Because you have laws on the books for the crimes people commit, it's just the three strike law is an enhancement. And it's an enhancement, to me, that's been abused by ... Whether it's prosecutors, whether it's judges; because like I say, 25 to life, that's just what's said. But then the sentence ends up to be 900, 1,000 years to life.

Sarah Shourd:

Right. So we need to continue to ride this wave. There has been substantial reform in California's prison system.

Earlonne Woods:

Correct.

Sarah Shourd:

I've focused a lot on solitary confinement, and that has been reduced in the state. We need to stay on that.

Earlonne Woods:

Indeed.

Sarah Shourd:

On that road, and stay steady. So what's next for Ear Hustle? Where is it going from here? The new season is going to drop soon?

Nigel Poor:

Yes! Wednesday, Wednesday. It's Wednesday.

Earlonne Woods:

June 5th is-

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

I'll say June 5th came too soon.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

I've been enjoying my freedom, but whew. I understand the working people, now. I understand you.

Sarah Shourd:

Seriously.

Nigel Poor:

So things that are going to change, obviously because Earlonne's out, we are doing stories about life inside and also about reentry. One of my personal goals is to start doing stories that include more women's experiences in prison, because like every other ... Yes. Every other part of life, women in prison also get the short end of the stick. We are hoping, not this season, but next season, to start traveling to other prisons to do stories there. And just make connections with other prisons. I wanted to say that we couldn't do this if we didn't have the support of the administration. And so what we need to do in order to spread Ear Hustle is to make more connections not just with people inside, but find the sympathetic people inside the Department of Corrections who are interested in working with us.

Nigel Poor:

And if you listen to the podcast, you hear at the end that it's always approved by Lieutenant Sam Robinson, who's the Public Information Officer at San Quentin, and he's incredibly supportive. And I always think of a quote that he said about prisons, and that is that the taxpayer pays for prisons. And because of that, we have a right to know what is happening inside prison, and we have a right to try to change that. So when I hear that quote coming from someone with inside the system, it gives me hope that people on the outside, or people that are incarcerated can form meaningful bonds and try to make a difference. I don't think it's impossible.

Nigel Poor:

I mean, Earlonne and I just started with a desire to do something, and we made it happen. We're not special. We didn't have any advantage over anyone else. We just were determined. And if we can do that and make some small change, it's like ... There's a lot of other people that are doing it, too, and need to be heard.

Sarah Shourd:

Definitely, definitely. Yeah, there's definitely a growing consciousness in the state and across the country.

Earlonne Woods:

Right.

Sarah Shourd:

And it is ... I think the story around who we put in our prisons and why has shifted towards a much more human story, a story that these are our neighbors and our friends and our family members, and they're not people that we want to throw away. They're people that we need on the outside.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah.

Sarah Shourd:

So thank you for being part of making that shift. So yeah. I mean, we have a few more minutes. So as far as looking at the bureaucracy of prison and how we want the DMV to run efficiently, is there a way that ... I mean, because when you think of an efficient prison, does that actually benefit prisoners? Or, is there ... How can we make prisons more efficient, as far as rehabilitating people and getting them out?

Earlonne Woods:

I think you really just have to bring the programs to the prison, because a lot of prisons don't have all the same ... Other prisons in California are just not San Quentin. San Quentin offers a lot. Maybe it's because of the location of San Quentin.

Sarah Shourd:

Right.

Earlonne Woods:

It's in between cities, but-

Sarah Shourd:

Because you were in a couple other facilities, so you can compare.

Earlonne Woods:

Yes. And those facilities didn't have the self-help groups. They may have had AA, NA, but it's hard to get on those lists. You know? So as far as self-help programs that actually help you in your life, or help you identify why you went down that path, causative factors and stuff like that; all prisons are probably just now starting to get there, but mainly it was just basically on you to try to find that in your life. You know? Try to find that help, whether it was reading a book and doing a book report, or whatever.

Earlonne Woods:

But I think a lot of guys who want help, but sometimes it's not offered; or it might be the prison itself, the conditions in the prisons, where it's just chaotic.

Sarah Shourd:

Right, right, exactly. And any last words? Is there a particular person that responded to the podcast in a beautiful way, a story that you wanna tell?

Nigel Poor:

Oh, yes.

Sarah Shourd:

This is all about stories.

Nigel Poor:

I have ... Can I tell a story?

Earlonne Woods:

The way you just did that, yeah.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, okay. This is particularly beautiful. We do a thing on the podcast where we ask listeners to send us letters that we can respond to. And we got a letter from a woman in southern California whose son is serving time in a prison in Thailand. It's a pretty awful place, and they have no TV, no radio. And she said that she sends him transcripts of Ear Hustle for him to read to the other English-speaking people who are incarcerated there. And that story is ... I mean, it almost makes me cry every time I think of it, because it's such a beautiful story about connecting and that people that are so far away from us that we'll never meet, are actually hearing the voices and our voices that we put in the podcast, and that a mom cared enough to reach out and try to give something to her son when she can't physically be with him. And in my mind, I have this image of him reading these transcripts to all these people, and so ... It's beautiful.

Earlonne Woods:

Yeah. No, no, that was beautiful, Nigel. That was ... I think, just if you all are involved in institutions, volunteer. You know? Because I always tell Nigel that volunteers are on the frontline of public safety. You know? It's not the ... I mean, the correctional officers, they do theirs and the administration do theirs, but I think the volunteers are pretty much on the frontline of public safety.

Nigel Poor:

Yeah, and individuals can make a difference.

Sarah Shourd:

Yeah.

Earlonne Woods:

Yeah, make a big difference.

Sarah Shourd:

Well, thank you both. You're both wonderful people. Keep your ears on Ear Hustle, and also just continue to engage with our system of incarceration. We have to figure out how to do better. Thank you all.

Earlonne Woods:

Thank you.