‘Ear Hustle’: Podcast Unchains Voices From Behind Prison Walls

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — “You can lock up the body, but you can’t lock up the mind.” 

That’s one of the things you hear from the men inside San Quentin State Prison. And the voice — you can’t lock that up, either. Especially the voices of a couple of inmates who have launched a series of regular audio dispatches from inside what used to be one of America’s most notorious prisons. 

Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams created a podcast known as “Ear Hustle,” aided and abetted by Nigel Poor, an artist and academic who first came to know the men as a video instructor and later when she helped launch an in-house radio program, “Windows and Mirrors.” 

It appears to be the first podcast produced entirely from inside the walls of a federal or state prison. “Ear Hustle” debuted last week and quickly climbed to the top ranks of the nation’s most popular podcasts. (It was number 12 this week.)

The first episode, “Cellies,” explored the tribulations, absurdities and occasional terrors that come with living with another man, for roughly 12 hours a day, in a nine-by-four-foot box. A future program will profile “Roach,” an inmate who nurtures creatures small and smaller; another will commiserate with a prisoner about his first conjugal visit in 27 years; and a third will plumb a gang-banger’s quiet remorse in a piece called “Misguided Loyalty.” 

Audio distributor PRX selected the prison podcast last November from 1,537 competitors in an “open call” to promote new voices and fresh talent. Williams, a 29-year-old serving 15 years for armed robbery, recalls that victory as “one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” adding: “It was like, man, there is value in us. We need to start acknowledging that and standing on that.” 

“Ear Hustle” — prison argot for eavesdropping — arrives as just the latest innovation at one of the nation’s oldest and most mythologized prisons. San Quentin was the former home of the 19th-century “gentleman bandit” Black Bart, the birthplace of the Black Guerrilla Family, and the scene of Eldridge Cleaver’s break with the Black Panthers. Its Death Row once housed cult leader Charles Manson and “Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez. 

Threats of violence still loom, and prisoners call the tiny, two-inmate cells the most restrictive of any main-line facility in the state. But outside the foreboding Death Row — the largest in the nation with 726 inmates — San Quentin’s sprawling yard thrums with an occasionally hopeful, even uplifting, vibe. 

The prison’s general population can dive into a panoply of rehabilitative programs — working on a newspaper, producing documentary film projects, attending origami classes, even performing in-house with the Marin Shakespeare Company. So many counselors, teachers, writers and musicians come here to volunteer their time (in non-taxpayer supported programs) that cars spill on to neighboring Main Street from the parking lot beside gray-green San Francisco Bay.

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