James Mehigan, The Open University
San Quentin is probably California’s most famous prison. Johnny Cash recorded his second prison album there in 1969 and it even gets a mention in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Fans of Louis Theroux will remember his visit to the prison for his 2008 documentary Louis Theroux: Behind Bars. Though the reach of San Quentin’s reputation may stretch from Nobel Laureate to the BBC, it is unusual to hear a prisoner’s perspective on life as one of the 4,000 or so residents of California’s oldest prison. That is why the podcast Ear Hustle is essential listening for anybody interested in prisons, criminology or the justice system.
The name ‘Ear Hustle’ comes from the prison slang for over-hearing or listening in. The show is a collaboration between a visual artist who volunteers at the prison, Nigel Poor, and Earlonne Woods, a prisoner serving a sentence of 31 years to life for attempted second degree robbery. Poor began volunteering at the prison in 2011 and established a radio project with prisoners in 2013. She and Woods work together to tell the stories of the prisoners incarcerated in a way that is unusual, sensitive and thought provoking. In comparison with Theroux’s documentary which treated the prisoners with something of a lurid fascination, Ear Hustle treats each of its contributors with empathy and understanding.
Previous seasons have covered a variety of topics including the politics of sharing a space of 4.5*10.8 foot (137*329 cms) with cell mates, known by the slang term ‘cellies’. They have looked at the challenges of being both a parent and a prisoner as well as how prisoners keep pets. A slightly recurring theme relates to sexuality, the prison taboo which the podcast tackles head on. There is an episode on LGBTQ life in an institution where nobody is openly gay, and an episode discussing the way in which prisoners access formal and informal conjugal visits. There is also an interview with a prisoner given a long sentence as a teenager who is due to be released and is thinking through how the dating scene will deal with questions of incarceration and virginity.
On the more serious end of the spectrum is the saddening discussion of death row. San Quentin serves as California’s death row for men and houses some 700 men sentenced to die. This death row is bigger than the entire death rows of Texas (243) and Florida (374) and it may be the largest death row in the world. Although nobody has been executed at San Quentin since 2006, these prisoners live inside a ‘prison within a prison’. The Ear Hustle producers reached out to death row inmates through the prison paper and managed to interview some. The whole episode is touching and saddening and brings out the inherent barbarity involved when the state decides to take human life.
There is a risk when empathetically collecting first-hand accounts, that the narrative is one which over-romanticises the prison and the prisoner. So it is worth saying that Ear Hustle is not particularly guilty of this. It is clear throughout that the presenters are concerned about the plight of the victims of those interviewed as they choose their interviewees and their topics. In one memorable episode a trafficking victim confronts a trafficker about the nature of his crimes in a restorative justice symposium. It’s tough listening, but it is fantastic to hear a victim use the discussion so effectively.
Listeners can take what they want from the show but for me it is hard not to view it as a cautionary verse about the value of the European Convention of Human Rights (‘ECHR’). The abolition of the death penalty in Protocol 13 means that there would be no death row episode. On the other hand, the weakness of Article 8’s protection of private and family life means that there would be no conjugal visit episode for Ireland or the UK. So, for at least sex and death the ECHR has changed the lives of UK prisoners compared to their American cousins.
This impact can also be seen in the insights the show provides on how parole operates in California. In the UK the parole process has been shaped by Article 5 of the ECHR. Getting released on parole, known to prisoners of San Quentin as ‘getting a date’ is not subject to the same hard-won protections. For example you can hear the prisoners discussing whether the Governor of California will accept the release decision of the parole board. Such a refusal would be a breach of a UK prisoner’s human rights today.
Season 3 started on 12 September 2018. It promises to expand on the insights and stories presented in the first 2 series and I’ll certainly be listening. Though it’s not just a podcast. There is an Ear Hustle website, which includes the transcripts of each episode (some prisoners without access to the podcast on prison radio have the transcripts posted in by family members) and a Twitter account. Perhaps more interestingly, an Instagram account with pictures from inside the prison helps bring a face to the voices that you come to know on the podcast.
This entire online platform, with its music, pictures and sounds helps bring the human voices out through the wall of the prison. It is hard to imagine a UK prison allowing such an innovative use of technology, but it would help to reach across the divide between the prison and the community it serves. We can only hope that it could be replicated here soon.