I don’t say this lightly: Ear Hustle is the best podcast of 2017. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s warm. It’s sincere. It’s gripping. It’s nuanced. It horrifying. It is storytelling at its absolute best. And it’s all told by prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in California.
I am categorically calling this the best podcast of 2017 despite being someone who veers heavily toward the lighthearted in my podcast feed. I’m generally of the camp that I have enough crap (literal and figurative) in my life as a mother of three in this climate that I really don’t need to add self-imposed difficulties to my life. That’s why I was hesitant to download Ear Hustle at first. But I’m so glad I did. And you will be too.
Ear Hustle, from PRX’s Radiotopia, is prison slang for “eavesdropping.” And the show feels very much like that. You get a line into prison life that many of us, fortunately, otherwise would never get. The show itself is made inside of San Quentin’s media lab by two prisoners – Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, along with local artist and volunteer Nigel Poor. Earlonne and Nigel co-host the show.
Each episode tackles a different aspect of prison life. Sometimes the episodes focus on one individual and what got them into prison. For instance, episode two focuses heavily on one inmate and his journey that led him to where he is now. More often, the episodes deal with realities of prison life, from the light-hearted (The Boom-Boom Room) to the more serious, like getting old and dying in prison.
Some background on myself: I've spent nearly the last decade working for a legal nonprofit that supports and advances victims’ rights. While this doesn’t mean I’m anti-prisoner or anti-defendant, I do definitely veer toward being biased toward the victim. This show gave me a much-needed perspective into the humanity of those who are incarcerated.
Most of the people who we hear from are so heart-wrenchingly human. They are intelligent and funny, and often able to own up to the mistakes they made. One example comes at the end of episode three, Looking Out, where co-host Earlonne asks inmates in the yard what animal they would be and why.
Answers include “Dog, because I know someone would adopt me,” and “Marmot, because they’re misunderstood. Everybody thinks they’re weasels and they’re not, they’re marmots,” and “A jellyfish because it has no natural enemies.” I’ll stop there, but this exchange captures everything that is wonderful about the show. It is honest and smart and funny and surprising and, at its heart, deeply sad.
The inside glimpse into prison life is also incredibly interesting. The episode on solitary confinement, including interviews with prisoners who spent 20-plus years in solitary, will have you rethinking the justice system from top to bottom. Same thing for the episode on California’s three-strikes law. The show tackles smaller issues too, like the process of finding a cellmate or keeping pets in prison or, yes, getting intimate.
If you like the personal background stories, start with episode two, Misguided Loyalty. It tracks the story of Tommy Shakur Ross, the son of a preacher, who ended up joining a gang, committing murder, and having his family murdered in retaliation. It also tells the story of his gradual transformation in prison.
If you are more interested in big social justice issues, listen to episode four, The Shu. If you watch "Orange is the New Black," you’re familiar with the Shu, slang for solitary confinement. The look inside what solitary confinement is like, and what it does to those who manage to escape it, is a must-listen.
For just a peek into the life, listen to episode one, Cellies. It explains what cell-life is like, including the incredibly important issue of who you’re sharing your 4.5-by-10-foot cell with.
Try Death, Sex and Money by WNYC. The show offers a similar deep dive into difficult subjects. Rating: Listen with teens or wear earbuds due to explicit language and adult themes