Ear Hustle

Sacramento State professor’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast eavesdrops on life in San Quentin.


“I wanted to do a project about everyday things, not about crime or sensationalizing what prison is like and how horrible it is."

–Professor Nigel Poor, Sacramento State

Prior to Nigel Poor's time as a volunteer professor for The Pris​​on University Project at San Quentin State Prison, her perception of life behind bars was based on bad television portrayals and one-sided media coverage. As a result, when the California State University, Sacramento professor of photography was first buzzed through the gates in 2011, she braced for an atmosphere of anger and intimidation.

“What shocked me was how it was like going into this small village where people were polite and interested," she recalls. “My students loved having conversations and had so many questions. The guys were excited to have the class."

During her three years te​aching history of photography at the prison, Poor got to know quite a few people. One of them was Earlonne Woods, who was serving life under the three-strikes law. Together, they came up with the concept for Ear Hustle (prison slang for eavesdropping), a podcast that would be available inside all prisons within the California Department of Corrections.

“The idea was for me to be the outside person and Earlonne to be the inside person," she explains. “We wanted to tell stories about life inside and also outside post-incarceration from the perspective of people who live it, but Earlonne and I would escort listeners through the story."

Poor then heard about a Radiotopia PRX contest in search of a new podcast to pick up. “We ended up winning," she says. “It was crazy." With approval from the prison administration and under the supervision of Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Ear Hustle hit the airwaves in June 2017. Within the first month, they'd secured a million downloads.

The allure of Ear Hustle can be chalked up to a targeted approach to humanize life in lockup. “A lot of people are curious about prison," Poor says. “Ear Hustle addresses those curiosities in a different way. In every episode we use humor and intelligence, combined with stories about pain, deprivation and violence. I don't think that's really been done before. We make stories with the same emotions that could take place anywhere. It happens to be that they take place in prison."

The show produces two seasons a year in spring and fall, with all recording and editing taking place at the media lab at San Quentin. Stories showcasing those who've been released are created at the Ear Hustle office in Emeryville at The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Nigel Poor, right, and Earlonne Woods, center, conduct an interview at San Quentin State Prison.

“A lot of the guys in San Quentin are proud of it and want to be part of it," Poor says. “There's definitely some who shy away. The old-timers who've been in there 30, 40 years tend to have a code about not talking to the media. But in general, it's pretty easy for us to get folks involved. They tell me their family listens to Ear Hustle and it's the first time they really understand what their life is like."

The podcast explores topics such as:

  • What is it like having a cellmate?
  • What happens when you're a parent in prison and you can't be around your children?
  • What is it like the first time you have a family visit?
  • How do you keep pets in prison?
  • How do you cook?
  • What's it like to be a transgender woman in a men's prison?
  • What happens when you're not a legal resident?
  • What are jobs like?
  • What is prison like for sex offenders?

“I wanted to do a project about everyday things, not about crime or sensationalizing what prison is like and how horrible it is," Poor says. “I'm not a journalist. People's minds get changed when they hear first-person narratives and they get to look into somebody's life and see commonality. I learn through connecting with people and I thought, 'Well, that changes my mind. That's going to change other people's minds, too.' That was really my overarching goal—to use artistic storytelling as a way to connect people and get them to listen."

“At the beginning of every season, we have a storyboard meeting, throw up every topic we're interested in and then start putting them through a funnel," Nigel Poor says.

And listen, they do. Ear Hustle is now played in all 33 prisons throughout California, in facilities across the country and in 114 prisons in the United Kingdom. In May 2020, the podcast was honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the first-ever audio recording category. “Humbly, I have to say it's pretty neat," Poor says regarding the accomplishment.

On November 21, 2018, Woods's sentence was commuted by then-Governor Jerry Brown and he was released from San Quentin. A search was conducted for his replacement and Rashaan Thomas was brought on board. Poor, Woods and Thomas now host Ear Hustle together.

Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods speak with former governor of California Jerry Brown, far right.

After experiencing such profound stories, Poor says she can't help but have them inform her teaching at Sacramento State. As a result, she has noticed more dialogue and a greater air of acceptance on campus.

“A lot of my students know what I do, and I have so many people come up to me after class to tell me about what's happening in their lives," she says. “I've noticed students bring up issues about their family members being incarcerated, and the other people in class are very respectful and listen. I can see they feel they can talk about it without feeling shame or discomfort or that someone's judging them. I hope that Ear Hustle had something to do with that."

To see what life in prison is really like, listen to the Ear Hustle podcast.