For a guy about to serve 25-to-life, Ron Self came to San Quentin with an admirably relaxed attitude about his situation. "Having spent all my adult life in the marine corps, special forces, been in combat, raised in military schools, I thought, you know, OK, prison … how bad can that be?"
Then he met his cellmate, a guy named Duck who was hell-bent on murdering him. "He would yell, he would scream, he'd threaten to kill me. I would sleep with my back to the wall and one eye open … if you would call what I did sleeping."
Self's story opens the first episode of Ear Hustle, an engrossing new podcast out of San Quentin prison, a state facility in California. Co-produced by inmates Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, along with Bay Area artist Nigel Poor, the series is the first podcast to use prisoners' storytelling skills to show what it's like to spend decades behind bars. "It's about everyday life inside a prison. How do you survive? How do you deal with family, love, depression, having children, finding meaning in life?" says Poor. "It addresses important issues about being human and how prisoners can be contributing citizens." All three share co-creator and co-producer credit; Woods and Poor host the show, while Williams creates the music and ambient sounds that accompany prisoner interviews and Poor and Woods' engrossing back-and-forth.
If creating a podcast in prison seems next to impossible, that's because it is. At first, none of them had the right kind of training. "We had no background in audio, which was good. I wasn't going to be the expert, we were going to learn together," Poor says. Even now that they've mastered the form, there's the problem of how hard it is to get anything done in prison. "It takes forever to do things," Poor says. "You need patience and persistence and politeness. There's so much red tape, everything takes time." When the prison is on lockdown, they can't get work done, causing delays in production. The warden has to approve anything that comes out of the prison (including interviews for this story), though so far he's been amenable. "And nothing is stable in prison. There's always the chance that one of them could get shipped to another prison," Poor says.
The project started with a history of photography class, which Poor taught as a volunteer. One of her students asked if she'd want to work together on a documentary about life in San Quentin. At first she thought it was a great idea. Then it dawned on her that given all the restrictions of shooting footage in the prison the movie wouldn't get finished until she was 80, so they decided to go with audio. That turned out to be a good choice. "The sounds in the prison are so amazing, and the different men's voices are more beguiling than an image," she says.
"I want the listeners to be able to relate to the struggles that we go through on a day-to-day basis and not get caught up in the us-versus-them mentality," Woods writes from San Quentin, where he's serving 31 years-to-life for attempted second-degree robbery. "We're all the same. Some of us just took different routes and needed a time out and a little rehabilitation to get back to responsible behavior."
"With the podcast, the possibilities are endless," Antwan Williams writes from the prison, where he's been since 2011, since he was 18. "I like how we listen to people talk and we start to see moments that can stick to people's heart. Thinking about the sound design that can enhance a moment. In an environment where creativity can sometimes fade away, creating these moments with sound is one of my favorite parts."
The result is a fascinating, harrowing and also deeply entertaining look into life on the inside that runs the full gamut of emotions. "There is a lot of humor alongside many difficult, depressing things," Poor says. With the possible exception of Johnny Cash songs, humor is not a common motif in either art or journalism about America's prisons. But at times Ear Hustle is really funny – in part because co-host Woods has grown great sense of humor. "Earlonne is serving 31-to-life," says Poor. "He's a three-striker. If he didn't take a dark humor view of things, he wouldn't survive."
In one hilarious but bittersweet story, two brothers who'd both ended up in San Quentin describe trying to live together. Excited to share a cell with family, they soon discovered serious irreconcilable differences. Eddie Deweaver is a Seventh-Day Adventist, who didn't like his brother Emil blasting the soap opera The Young and the Restless in their tiny cell on the Sabbath. It turned out that his dad used to beat his mom for watching soap operas, so the show was triggering for him. He also took offense to his brothers' smoking, and he refused to wear deodorant because of the unhealthy chemicals, although Emil suspects this had a retaliatory aspect since smells matter a lot in a closet-sized cell. The final straw was over the smoking.
"We are in prison for life. I have 67 years to life, you have 27 years to life, man, I am smoking this cigarette," Emil says. The show has many moments like this: the nightmare of a life sentence mixed with the absurd comedy of bickering over deodorant and cigarettes. Other episodes will take on gang affiliations, family visits, life in solitary confinement, celebrations and even the logistics of having a pet in prison.
In focusing on the personal, the series mostly stays away from larger policy issues surrounding mass incarceration. But the themes that propel criminal justice reform are there. "Racism, violence, compassion. I think we're getting at the stuff, maybe in a quieter way," Poor explains. In humanizing prisoners, their project should go a long way towards changing minds about how and why we imprison people for decades.
"You can't get people interested in changing laws without getting the public to care about these people," Poor says. "I hope when people realize that Earlonne is serving 31-to-life for attempted robbery, it makes them say, 'What the fuck? Our justice system is so messed up.'"
When asked about getting out, Woods responds enthusiastically. "HELL YEAH!" he writes. "It's sad that I've been here all of these years based on politics (politics being the three strikes law). But yes, I think about getting out every day, as well as every two years – that's when they have elections in California. I'm only a ballot measure away from getting out."
"The one thing every prisoner in the world share is the thought of getting out," Williams writes. "This podcast is teaching us a great skill set that we want to apply to our lives once we leave here. We want to help change a world we will ultimately be returning to."