The first rule of prison life is to mind your own business. In a world without secrets, eavesdropping on another's conversation—“ear hustling,” as it's known in prison-speak—can get you in serious trouble. But audiences have nothing to worry about when they tune in for Ear Hustle, a new podcast produced from behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison in California. Listening in on these biweekly conversations about prison life may even provide Christians a meaningful new way to respond to the biblical summons to “remember those in prison.”
Winner of Radiotopia's 2016 Podquest competition, Ear Hustle invites listeners to step inside one of America's most notorious lockups to hear its inhabitants' real-life stories, in their own words. It's made possible through a unique collaboration among Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both of whom are currently incarcerated at San Quentin, and Bay Area visual artist Nigel Poor, a volunteer who works with inmates at the prison's media lab.
Each half-hour segment explores a different facet of life behind bars, featuring the hosts' first-person interviews and impromptu “yard talk” sessions with actual prisoners. Woods and Poor overlay these conversations with their own observations and experiences, framing each episode as a casual chat between a respectfully curious outsider and a comfortably self-aware insider. What emerges from their interactions are surprisingly relatable tales of human brokenness and personal identity in a world that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time.
In the lighthearted first episode, for instance, we hear about the domestic squabbles that crop up when two brothers, Eddie and Emile, request to share the same 4-foot-by-9-foot cell, only to discover that they don’t make very good roommates. “Living with someone in an apartment is difficult,” one of them explains, “but living with someone in a box—you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways.” At the end of the segment, Poor jokes about how finding a compatible cellmate at San Quentin seems—to an outsider—a lot like dating in the free world. You have to “court” each other and, if things seem to work out, eventually you have to “pop the question” and see if the other person wants to move in with you.
Listening to Ear Hustle is a small way to “remember those in prison.”
Things aren’t always so upbeat, though. In the more serious second episode, we hear from a former gangster named Shakur who has worked hard to distance himself from his old gang moniker “Joker.” His new Muslim identity enables him to embrace rather than retaliate against the brother of a rival gang member who murdered his mother and brother decades earlier. Woods ends the segment by commenting on how some in prison will forever see Shakur as “Joker” and expect him to live up to that image. But, he says, “if you’re going to change, the story you tell about yourself has to change—and that’s true if you’re inside or outside of prison.”
Such important gleanings make Ear Hustle more than just a novelty. It’s upbeat and positive, but it’s also honest and gritty. Contrary to what some might expect, it neither glamorizes prison culture nor unnecessarily complains about the miseries of doing time. Each episode is a deeply ethnographic encounter that gently challenges the easy stereotypes we apply to the people we incarcerate. Christians willing to listen to these prisoners’ stories with an open mind may discover that, despite their crimes, they aren't so different from the rest of us.
It's important for us to recognize that Christ's call to pay attention to prisoners doesn't necessarily mean getting involved in political advocacy, signing up to be an in-prison volunteer, or joining a pen pal outreach program. As good as such things are for the church, not every Christian will feel especially led to those kinds of ministries, and that’s OK. What’s not OK is for any of us to become so hardened to the men and women in prison that we forget that they’re still real people with real stories and real voices. Many are growing through their experiences of incarceration, and listening to their stories is a powerful gesture of solidarity—a way to identify with them in their brokenness and to be reminded of our own.
Simply tuning in for a podcast once every couple of weeks may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. In giving time and space for prisoners to speak, we affirm their right to be heard. What’s more, when we take an interest in their damaged lives, we mirror God's interest in ours.