Host Of The Prison Podcast 'Ear Hustle' Reflects On His 27 Years Behind Bars

Jan 23, 2019
Originally published on January 23, 2019 12:40 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

GROSS: That's the sound of the San Quentin prison door slamming as my guest Earlonne Woods was released in late November after being incarcerated there for seven years. The sound was recorded because he's the co-host and co-producer of the podcast Ear Hustle, which features interviews with San Quentin inmates talking about daily life there, things like living with a cellmate in a tiny cell, what it's like to be in solitary confinement, the heartbreak of being a parent separated from your child, how everything inside is separated by race and so on.

The podcast title, Ear Hustle, is prison slang for eavesdropping or being nosy. Woods was convicted of attempted second-degree robbery but because of the three-strikes law was sentenced to 31 years to life, most of which was served in prisons other than San Quentin. Governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence in November, and Woods regained his freedom after serving 21 years of his sentence.

Also with us is Nigel Poor. She co-created the podcast with Woods and has co-hosted and co-produced it with him. Poor is a professor of photography at California State University in Sacramento. She first started working at San Quentin in 2011 as a volunteer in the Prison University Project, teaching the history of photography. Before creating the podcast, Woods and Poor did interviews with inmates in San Quentin for public radio station KALW in San Francisco.

Earlonne Woods, Nigel Poor, welcome to FRESH AIR. Earlonne, congratulations on life outside of prison. So before...

EARLONNE WOODS: Thank you.

GROSS: ...We talk about the podcast and before we talk about your work together, Earlonne, I want to talk with you about life outside. After you got out of San Quentin, you and Nigel went to the governor's mansion. And Jerry Brown was then the governor of California.

E WOODS: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: And - so you interviewed him about commuting your sentence.

E WOODS: Right.

GROSS: And you thanked him for doing it. And I want to play what he said to you. So this is...

E WOODS: OK.

GROSS: ...Governor Jerry Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

JERRY BROWN: It all goes to this point that something very bad happens, and people will say, OK, now we're putting you in jail for a very long time. And the assumption is that what you did at that moment is what you are today even though it's five years, 10 years, 20, 30 years later. And so that's the point that I'm struck by - that human beings in a moment can do something with devastating consequences. And then the question is, well, what do we do about that?

But I'd say a lot of people, particularly in law enforcement, want to look at the crime only, and that's really the big debate. Can people change? Should we recognize the change, or once you did the act, that's who you are - your essence, your identity - and never to be considered? So I think that's very damaging. It destroys hope, and it violates the principle that redemption is at the essence of what it is to be human.

GROSS: That was Governor Jerry Brown interviewed by my guests Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor. So Earlonne, let me ask you about ways you think you've changed since you were a teenager and were first put in prison. And you've had two separate stays, and the last one lasted 21 years.

E WOODS: Right.

GROSS: So you know, you're a middle-aged man now. So what are some of the ways...

E WOODS: Forty-seven years old.

GROSS: Yeah. What are some of the ways you think you've changed over the years?

E WOODS: Well, I think - so I'll say this. My first prison term, I went to jail when I was 17. And I was paroled when I was 23, about to turn 24. And when I went to prison, it was pretty much the California Department of Corrections, and there was not a rehabilitation on the name then. So prison was more like, oh, hey, this is a place to go and continue your gang activity, continue your destructive behavior. And that's pretty much what I did. I went in and ended up in a security housing unit a couple of times for lengthy stays and just continued my pretty much destructive behavior all the way out. And then when I got out, I hadn't put any skill sets together, you know? So I still had a 17-year-old mentality.

I got out, stayed out two years, 10 months and found myself back in jail for attempted second-degree robbery. And this time, they had something for me, which was the three-strike law. They said that, hey, when you went to jail when you were 17 - yeah, it was one time, but there was two convictions in that case. So we're going to strike you out this time. And they - and I received 31 years to life.

And when I went in the second time, my friend Furman Little (ph) was killed the night we were arrested. The responding officers shot him five times, killed him. And my whole thinking, like, changed in that moment. It was like a light switch. Like, what was all this for? Like, what - why were we on this path, you know? So for me internally, I started my change. Like, in the county jail, I was like, OK, I'm done with this side of life because even though our philosophy growing up was for death though - you know, meaning I'd rather be carried by six than judged by 12 - that was just the philosophy we had growing up, you know? And it actually...

GROSS: Wait; so that means, like, you'd rather die than be...

E WOODS: I'd rather die than go to jail.

GROSS: ...Tried and put in prison.

E WOODS: Yes, yes. And when it actually happened, it was a - it was an awakening in me, like, oh, I don't - why is we living this way, you know? Why we living like we don't care - because this is somehow how we grew up and how - since as early teenager we've been living in the streets, in the gangs. Everybody we know live the same lifestyle, you know? And when I was sitting in a county jail, you know, mentally, I pretty much divorced myself from that whole way of life in that moment, you know? Like, I just walked away, you know? And as time went on, as years went on, I stuck to my guns. I was just done.

I think maybe 14 years in my sentence, I went to San Quentin. And I got into this group. It was a restorative justice group. And we used to do, like, healing circles. And it really wasn't until I got into the healing circle that I understood what it was like to be a survivor of crime because in these circles, you're sitting across from crime victims. You're sitting across from politicians. You're sitting across from law enforcement. And y'all having these intimate conversations about, you know, why you went down this path or what it was like being a survivor, what it was like being this.

And you really get a better understanding of your impact that you've personally had on people in society. And it was one of them, I guess could you say, moments where you just feel embarrassed about your previous conduct. Even though you can't do nothing about your past, you just feel embarrassed about even going down that route, even victimizing anybody. So...

GROSS: Who - give us an example of somebody who you spoke to who had been a victim of a crime similar to the one that you committed that made you feel this, you know, sense of feeling bad for what you'd done.

E WOODS: So I'll give you example. This lady - her name was Claire. And it was one of the restore justice symposiums. It was transformational symposiums. And her son had attended a party. He had just became a paramedic or something. And he's standing in a group. They're waiting to get inside a club, and somebody from way across the street just shoot into the crowd, hit him in the heart, right?

And just listening to her tell her story to us and knowing that I've been in these type of situations or knowing that I've been probably on the other side of the gun or whatever the case may be and just hearing her loss, hearing her heartfelt testimony about this was really - it was shakening (ph), you know? It was - and it's not just her. It was other people telling, you know, their stories about being robbed or losing a child, losing a loved one. And it just puts you in a whole different space, you know? Mentally, it do, you know? It mentally puts you in a whole different space.

GROSS: So can I ask you an honest question? What's it like to not think about that? What's it like to not care about the person who you're robbing or the person who might be killed by a stray bullet? In some ways, like, I find it hard to understand that somebody, like, wouldn't have any empathy for the victim and wouldn't care.

E WOODS: I think the mentality is more of crime to you is a job. The victims of a crime are faceless. You're not really looking at the person. You're more looking at what you're getting out of the situation. Like, me personally, what I took away from a lot of things is that, yeah, I may have robbed a person for, let's say, $1. But I took way more from that person than $1. I took their security from them to even walk out the house and feel safe, you know? And when you're in that moment, I think it's more of crime to people in society that commit crime. It's a job.

GROSS: A job because you thought it was, like, your only source of income?

E WOODS: Well, me growing up the way I grew up, I grew up in a lifestyle where I was young when I got into selling drugs, and I was - I was real young. I probably was like 14. And then I got into the lifestyle of robbing drug dealers. And that's the only way of life that you're accustomed to 'cause that's all you see. And it's all that some of the people that you choose to associate with do, you know?

So you become accustomed to that lifestyle. And I think - I didn't - I didn't become accustomed to the lifestyle of working or having a job, you know? And many people around me wasn't like that. So I think I did what, pretty much, my community did that was around me.

GROSS: So this gets back to something you were just saying. I mean, there's two likely outcomes if you're robbing drug dealers. One is that you're going to get killed, and the other is that you'll eventually go to jail. You were OK with that?

E WOODS: I don't - I think when you're living in the moment, you feel untouchable. You know that it could be a possibility, but it's a possibility that you've seen pretty much your whole life, you know? You - you - you always feel that you're better than getting killed, like you would never get killed. You feel invincible in some ways.

But, as to being cool with it, it's what it is. You know, at that particular moment, in that mindset - like today, am I OK with that? Not at all. Not one bit, you know? It's - it's - I think being in a position to step away from it all and look back and say, man, I was on something else. I was on some - I would like to say other words, but I'm holding my (laughter)...

GROSS: You're on the radio (laughter).

E WOODS: (Laughter) I'm on the radio. But you look back, and you're looking at it like, I've wasted, like - I can say right now, I'm 47 years old. I've spent a total of 27 years in prison. So I've technically only been free 20 years in my life, and, since I was 17, I've been free maybe three years all together.

So you look at the time wasted, and you look at, man, if I knew better or I should've did better. But I just - just took a course that was - seemed cool to me at the time.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? If you're just joining us, my guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-hosts and co-producers of the podcast Ear Hustle, which features interviews with men incarcerated in San Quentin Prison about their daily lives and their personal stories. And Earlonne just had his sentence commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in November after serving 21 years. And Nigel is also a professor of photography at California State University.

We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor. They're the co-hosts and co-producers of the podcast Ear Hustle, which features interviews with men incarcerated in San Quentin about their daily lives and their personal stories.

Nigel is a professor of photography at Cal State. She started going to San Quentin to volunteer teaching photography. Then she started doing interviews, and then they started working together co-producing a radio show and then the podcast.

Earlonne, until the end of November, was a prisoner. And at the end of November, Governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence.

So do you think a lot about the fact that if Jerry Brown wasn't governor, and if another governor didn't share Jerry Brown's view...

E WOODS: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...That people can change and that you should look at the person and not just the crime - that you'd still be in prison, I mean?

E WOODS: Right. No, and I laugh because had Governor Brown probably not been the governor, I would still have 10 years of my sentence left. I'd still be sitting in San Quentin in a cell with my brother. And that was one of the things that I appreciated about Jerry Brown - especially everything he said in that clip that you played is the way people inside think. And it's the way people would hope other people think that, hey, OK, I've done my time. I've changed my life.

And for most people - for most people inside, they just want the chance to represent the person that they are today, you know? But the - the problem is is that a lot of the sentences are a hundred years, 200 years, 300 years. So they don't even have the opportunity to even go in front of the board to say, hey, look, for the last 21 years, I've changed, you know, because their board dates ain't till 2150, you know?

So to hear Governor Brown say that, it was like this is how we actually think. This is what we work for because there comes a moment in every person in prison's life where the light switch go on. And you start thinking differently, you know? You start attending different self-help groups. You start really understanding what the word community means and what your participation in community is about, you know?

And then, I always say that, you know, a lot of people that volunteer - people like Nigel Poor, people like other volunteers that volunteer inside of prisons - are on the frontline of public safety because these are the people that's coming in and is trying to show you a different way of life or trying to help you understand differently, think differently. So, yeah.

GROSS: Nigel, let me bring you into the conversation. So, Nigel, when you decided you wanted to start, like, a interview series that started on KALW - the public - one of the public radio stations in San Francisco, and then it became a podcast - you wanted a co-host and co-producer who was incarcerated in San Quentin.

NIGEL POOR: Yes.

GROSS: And you chose Earlonne. And you've said in the past that he was always the quietest person in the room, but you could tell he was a good observer. So what - what were the first communications like in which you tried to see, but is he a good interviewer? Or is he a good talker? Is he a good co-host?

POOR: Well, he wasn't necessarily a good talker because he was very quiet. I'm always interested in people who - I'm quiet myself. I'm pretty shy. And I'm always interested in people who kind of fade into the background a little bit because I suspect they could be the most interesting people in the room. And I - I observed Earlonne a lot. Yes, he was quiet, but he was always present. And he was always ready to help. And the thing that I noticed in particular about him was that whenever there was an issue going on - and, of course, inside prison, there's all kinds of issues - and if we would have to sit down to solve a problem, Earlonne was the one who would speak up, cut through all of the baloney and get to the point. And so to me, that meant he was a very good observer. He understood human nature. And he understood how to diffuse a situation. And I thought, well, those are kind of qualities that you need to be able to bring people out.

And so we just started talking, and I realized that he was interested in thinking about how we could do interviews from more of an artistic perspective and not as journalists. I realized that he had a really intense work ethic that matched my own and that we just really got along. I felt like in Earlonne I found a true professional colleague. It just turned out that he was incarcerated (laughter) so...

GROSS: Nigel, when you first started volunteering in San Quentin, what were some of the things you had to deal with as a woman teaching in a prison of men?

POOR: I'm so glad you asked about this. OK. So I was nervous at first to go in because, I mean, my head was full of all the images that, you know, of - from bad TV, bad movies, bad media about what prison was going to be like. And I was - yeah, I was definitely nervous. And when the men started filing into my class, I was like, oh, what have I done? Why am I doing this? But very quickly, when we started talking about photography - I was teaching a history of photography class - that kind of melted away. And we just had such great conversations.

So what - one of the things that I've really taken away from being in prison is that I've gotten an incredible glimpse into what it means to be a man and what men deal with. And it has made me - it has made me care about men so much more. I mean, I guess I had a kind of low estimation of men and what they were like. And so being in prison has just really altered that. And that surprised me greatly. So I think I understand more the complexity and the pressures and inside I get to see men relating in very heartfelt ways. I get to see how they express love and tenderness and fear and frustration and how they posture and what's behind that. So it's been a real eye-opener for me.

I've never had a problem. I've never felt scared or disrespected. In fact, when I walk through the yard, one of the things I really like is that people make eye contact. They say hello. They ask how you are. They're very polite. I have all the different people that I talk to as I work my way down to the media lab. And I spend a lot of time in there. When Earlonne was in, I was probably in there 40-plus hours a week, and I'm not a masochist. I wouldn't spend time in a place that made me uncomfortable or I didn't like. I actually oddly enjoy being in there. I find it invigorating.

GROSS: My guests are Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, the creators and hosts of the podcast Ear Hustle about life inside San Quentin Prison. Earlonne was an inmate as well as a host. His sentence was commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in November. Nigel is a professor at California State University. After a break, we'll hear and talk about excerpts of two episodes of Ear Hustle, one about a death that was devastating for Earlonne, the other about an interview that raised serious ethical questions for Nigel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETIENNE CHARLES' "MIDNIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the creators and hosts of the podcast Ear Hustle, featuring interviews with prisoners in San Quentin about their lives and what it's like to be incarcerated. Earlonne was not only one of the co-hosts, he was one of the men incarcerated until his release in late November after California Governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence. He had served 21 years of a 31-years-to-life sentence. Now Earlonne will be doing interviews with people like him who are transitioning back into society. Nigel is a professor of photography at California State University in Sacramento. She'll continue to do interviews inside San Quentin.

Earlonne, I want to ask you about the final podcast you recorded in San Quentin, which was largely about your older brother, Trevor, and your nephew, Tyler. Trevor has done 14 years of a 36-year sentence. Your nephew, his son, Tyler, was born in 1994. At the time, your brother and your nephew's mother, Tyra, were living what you describe as a life of crime together. Trevor was wanted and was on the run. Tyra got arrested first for kidnap and robbery. Tyra got arrested first for kidnap and robbery, and she was sentenced to 17 years. And then Trevor was arrested when their son, Tyler, was 10. Tyler was sent to live with extended family. So you recorded interviews with Trevor and Tyra talking about how difficult it is to maintain a relationship with your child when you're incarcerated and how difficult it is to help them stay out of trouble. And so I want to play an excerpt of that. And Trevor, your brother, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

TREVOR WOODS: You know, so Tyler was out there trying to grow up on his own, trying to be something that he didn't know nothing about.

TYRA WOODSON: And he began acting out. And it was just - I just seen him slipping through my fingers because I wasn't there to snatch him up.

T WOODS: You know, he was ripping and running with the gangs. You know, he was - you know, I even - I'm talking to him all the time. So even though I'm hearing stuff and then I'm talking to him, he playing - he downplaying it. So I'm not thinking that it's serious as much as I'm hearing. You know, he running the streets. He running with these hard heads. You know, they playing with guns or whatever have you.

And I'm like - I'm telling my son, son, look. Don't be - whatever you do, don't play with no guns. Don't be out there doing no robberies, none of that stuff. That stuff carries 17 years. I told him that constantly. Oh, daddy, I'm not playing with no guns. I'm not doing this. I'm not doing that. I'm not doing this. I'm doing that.

WOODSON: On November 19, 2013...

T WOODS: One the 19 - November 19, 2013 - federal prison - we have phones, and we have emails.

WOODSON: I used to work for the captain at CIW in the program office. I was a clerk. And the captain comes in. He says, I need to speak with you.

T WOODS: I received an email from one of my partners. And he said Tyler got killed by the police.

WOODSON: They told me that my son was murdered - well, killed. And I hit the floor.

GROSS: OK, so that was a little more than five years ago that Tyler was killed. Earlonne, tell us a little more about what happened to Tyler, how he was killed.

E WOODS: So on November 19, Tyler and his auntie and some other lady went to 7-Eleven to get a pack of cigarettes. It was like 2 in the morning. They had left the auntie's house. And on their way back to the auntie's house, they were pulled over by Long Beach Police Department - two officers. And as they questioned the driver, the passenger officer seen tattoos and Tyler's face and started questioning him, made him get out the car.

They searched Tyler, and then they ran his name. Tyler had missed a court appearance, so he feared that he would be locked up. He gave up his brother name. And the officer came back, was like, you're too tall for that name. And they say Tyler just took off running. And a chase pursued. Other officers got involved. They surrounded Tyler around a - at a apartment building, where he was trying to climb up to the roof. And they open fired on him. And they shot at Tyler, like, 40-something times. They struck him 19 times, killing him.

GROSS: So we heard a little bit through your interview of how your brother, Tyler's father, and Tyra, his mother, reacted to the news...

E WOODS: Right.

GROSS: ...That Tyler was killed while they were in prison. And your brother is still in San Quentin. What was your reaction when you found out?

E WOODS: It was devastating because I had - one, I had just talked to Tyler, like, probably the day before. And, you know, we was clowning on the phone. But to hear the very next day that he was killed - and my mother is who told me. When I called my mother, she told me this, right? And it was just like - it didn't even register with me. You know, when I was out for the two years 10 months, I raised Tyler, you know? - like, was with him pretty much every day.

GROSS: Oh, in between prison sentences.

E WOODS: In between prison - when I got out - Tyler had just been born in '94. And I got out in '95. And, you know, I pretty much raised - because my brother was locked up. I pretty much raised Tyler from '95 to '97, when I got arrested. And he used to come see me, you know, a lot. Like, my mother used to bring him. And so to hear this is what happened to him - ah. And to hear how it happened to him and to hear that he was shot 19 times, you know - and I just try to visualize, like, what he was going through at the time he was being shot at by those officers.

GROSS: So Tyler's father, your brother, is still in San Quentin during the final year that you were in San Quentin. He was...

E WOODS: Right.

GROSS: ...Your cellmate.

E WOODS: Right.

GROSS: Are you going to go back and visit him?

E WOODS: (Laughter) Not no time soon, no. No. So right now there would be a problem with me going back to see him because I'm currently on parole. Usually, you can't go back into a correctional facility on parole. You have to go through a lot of...

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.

E WOODS: Yeah, it's a lot of stuff you have to go through. But yeah, I can't. You know, he calls me. He's able to call me collect. I think it's about probably 20 people from there that call me collect.

POOR: You get a lot of calls from guys at San...

E WOODS: I get a lot of 15-minute calls from prison.

POOR: Yeah.

E WOODS: But I wouldn't have it no other way. I love it.

POOR: But I get to see his brother and catch him up on what you're doing.

E WOODS: Yeah, so that's cool. You know, they get to see each other in passing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-creators of the podcast Ear Hustle. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI AND JESPER BODILSEN AND MORTEN LUND AND MARK TURNER AND BILL FRISELL'S "ALOBAR E KUDRA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-creators of Ear Hustle, a podcast featuring their interviews with men incarcerated in San Quentin. Earlonne was both co-host and inmate. But he was released in November after his sentence was commuted by California Governor Jerry Brown. Nigel first went to San Quentin as a volunteer teaching photography.

Nigel, I want to play an excerpt of an episode that you were very prominent in. And I'm playing this because it's about knowing where the line is when you're interviewing prisoners and sometimes to have to ask something that's going to make them uncomfortable. There's a story you did about how people like you from the outside who come in to volunteer - because you started at San Quentin volunteering teaching photography before you started doing the podcast Ear Hustle.

So there's a rule that pertains to the volunteers who come in, and they're not allowed to have, like, close relationships with the prisoners, anything that gets really intimate or emotional. And I'm not even talking about physically intimate, but just emotionally intimate is against regulations. But apparently it's fine - like, if you fall in love, the prisoner and the volunteer fall in love, that's fine as long as the volunteer or the staff person is no longer going to be working there in any capacity.

So you're interviewing a prisoner who - he and one of the volunteers fell in love, and so she stopped working there in any capacity, and they got married. Eventually, the marriage fell apart. But after you recorded that interview, you found out something about him and decided, like, you could not play that interview unless you asked him another question. And so I want to play the part where you return to ask him that difficult question. So here's Nigel Poor, co-host and co-producer of the podcast Ear Hustle.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EAR HUSTLE")

POOR: There's something I have to talk to you about.

ERIN: OK.

POOR: And it's going to be a little bit hard.

ERIN: OK.

POOR: So I'm just going to be very blunt with you. Is that OK?

ERIN: Sure.

POOR: OK. So we do stories about life inside prison. We don't really do stories about people's crimes at all. And so I found out what you're in prison for. I was hoping I could talk to you a little bit about it.

ERIN: Um (laughter).

POOR: How do we tell stories and leave out that part?

ERIN: Yeah. I don't - I don't know.

POOR: Yeah.

ERIN: I don't - I don't know. I mean, I try to be, like, open and honest about my past and the things that I've done, including what I've done to get to prison. I don't know. I think the scope of the number of people that could possibly listen to this, I'm just really nervous about that.

POOR: Yeah.

ERIN: Yeah. I don't know.

POOR: While you're thinking, can I tell you some of the things that are just going through my mind about it? And it might help you.

ERIN: Absolutely.

POOR: So one of the things is that I really believe that people change. Like, I take you as the man you are in front of me. And I listen very carefully to how you talked about your relationship and how much you thought about it and how painful and joyous the whole experience was for you. And so when people listen to this story, that's what I want them to take away, that here's this person who is in a difficult situation. They eventually met this person. They fell in love just like anyone else would. It didn't work out, unfortunately. You end thinking, like, here's this guy who's very self-actualized. And then what worries me is, like, so people will leave with this very, like, I love this guy.

ERIN: Skewed view of things.

POOR: Yeah, not skewed, not skewed. But then someone will research you and be like, did they just feed me a bunch of bull [expletive]. But if we could just talk about it and come to some understanding about what's our responsibility, what's your responsibility? So I'm trying to like - I'm trying to partner with you here. How do we present this?

ERIN: Oh, [expletive]. You guys are killing me (laughter). Here you guys are, poking and - poking and prodding.

POOR: Well, let me ask you this - do you feel like we're being unfair trying to make you do this?

ERIN: No, I don't feel you're being unfair at all, and I don't ultimately know what my hesitancy is. So on December 7, 1994, I murdered my ex-girlfriend, the mother of my now-25-year-old daughter.

GROSS: And Nigel, just as a person who's constantly interacting with inmates at San Quentin, do you want to know what they're incarcerated for, what crime they were convicted of? Or would you just as soon not know and just judge them based on what they present to you in their interactions with you?

POOR: I don't ask unless it comes up as part of the story. I'd rather not know. I'd rather deal with anyone, actually, as they are in front of me at that moment. But the things that you do in your past do add dimension to who you are in this moment. So sometimes it's important, and I can give you an example. There's a man that I worked with for quite a while that I was very fond of. And at one point, he revealed to me that he had raped quite a few women. And it was very hard for that to not change the way I felt about him. I had to really work through it and think about it.

And he said the thing that all women fear is that I raped women because I could. And to hear - to take that in and to not be afraid and to not judge a person but to, like, sit with it and think about it and think about this was 30 years ago, like I just - I had to do a lot of work around that. And it's fine. I'm fine working with him now. But that was a case that challenged my desire to not know and to - how to deal with the knowing once it's been presented to you. So in that case, I didn't dig in. That was something that was volunteered to me.

GROSS: Earlonne, what's the custom among men in San Quentin? Do you usually know what somebody is in for and do you ask, or is that considered wrong to ask?

E WOODS: So I think that goes into, like, what they call politics in prison and where, you know, you may have certain prisons that it matters what you're in prison for like - and it's a difference on a race level. Like, you may have guys that are Hispanics or whites who, when they get to a certain prison, their race is like, let me see your paperwork. Let me see why you're here. But you may have the African-Americans who go to prison and they're at certain places and you don't get that question. So I think as far as African-American culture in prison, I don't think nobody really cares why you're in prison.

GROSS: So something I found really interesting is that the group that is multicultural and not segregated by race or ethnicity is the group that's into, like - the nerds, the group that are into, like, sci-fi fantasy and stuff like that. And, like...

POOR: They're called sevens.

E WOODS: Yeah.

GROSS: They're called sevens.

E WOODS: My partners. Those are my partners.

GROSS: Those are your partners.

E WOODS: Yes.

GROSS: What?

(LAUGHTER)

E WOODS: Hey - so I always go over to the L - I call them L7s. But I always go over to the fantasy game guys, and I'll just sit there for a minute and try to see if I even come close to understanding what's going on on that table.

POOR: It is a different world over there.

E WOODS: It is - they see something that I can't see. I don't think I have the vision to see it.

GROSS: So their...

E WOODS: I love it.

GROSS: Their brothers are the people who live in a similar world of fantasy as opposed to defining their brothers as being, you know, a skin color or ethnicity.

E WOODS: Right, right. And it's just about - you know, they accept anybody, you know? It's like - I think they're not under the constraints or the pressures to not accept people.

GROSS: Earlonne, how did you learn how to keep your calm and live in the kind of confined situation you were in during the more than two decades that you were incarcerated? You have to be able...

E WOODS: Well...

GROSS: ...To stay sane in a situation like that. And you also spent time in solitary, where it's very hard to stay sane.

E WOODS: Right. I'll say I've - on the second term - so the first term is where I did all the solitary stuff. But on the second term after - once you receive a life sentence, there's no guarantee that you'll ever be released from prison. So I think what kept me sane is that I had the philosophy where, I am going to live to the best of my ability every day that I have left on this Earth no matter where I'm at.

So it be at prison, I'm going to enjoy my day every day because at the end of the day, this is all I got, you know? I don't know what tomorrow brings, but I know what's happening today and right now. So I'm going to enjoy. And I think that's a shared philosophy with everybody that's in prison - is that you have to just deal with what's going on today, you know, and just not let the pressures of prison just get to your core and crush you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-hosts and co-producers of the podcast Ear Hustle. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, the co-hosts and co-producers of Ear Hustle, a podcast featuring their interviews with men incarcerated in San Quentin. Earlonne was both host and inmate, but he was released in November after his sentence was commuted by California Governor Jerry Brown. Nigel first started going to San Quentin as a volunteer teaching photography.

Can I ask how your relationship is changing now that you're both outside?

E WOODS: Well...

POOR: I can let Earlonne answer that one.

E WOODS: Well, I mean, it's cool, you know? I go over to Nigel's house, hang out with her husband Rick. He spin his vinyl.

(LAUGHTER)

E WOODS: He got a hell of a collection of vinyl.

(LAUGHTER)

E WOODS: I think - I was just tripping off - he was just peeling back one of the Beatles...

POOR: Oh, yeah. Yeah - the butcher cutters.

E WOODS: Beatle albums.

POOR: That's his obsession. We get - I mean, it's - you know, it's - we're just...

E WOODS: You're able to go out now. You're able to go...

POOR: We're able to go out. We're able to share food.

E WOODS: Yeah, share food.

POOR: We can taste each other's food 'cause, you know, in prison you can't share food with people. You have to wear the same clothes all the time. There's all these restrictions. So now we're - I mean, we're friends, and we're colleagues. And...

E WOODS: And of course I enjoy all the little moments. I was going to Nigel's house the other day, and I was an hour early. And I stopped by this lake. I don't know if it's a lake. It's something.

POOR: It's the bay - yeah, the bay, yeah.

E WOODS: It's the bay. I just stopped over there, went and sat on a rock and just watched the water for about an hour. It was so kick-back and cool, meaning I take advantage of all these moments now. I don't (laughter) take them for granted. I enjoy every second of every day.

POOR: And the other thing is we've always - we've tried to always keep this as equal as possible. But of course when someone's in prison and the other person's not, there's so many things you can't do. So now we just have the opportunity to travel together, to do something like this together. Instead of me representing it, Earlonne and I can represent it together. And one of my goals has been for us to travel to other prisons, and I never wanted to do that without Earlonne. So now we can actually do that and even...

E WOODS: Yeah.

POOR: ...Hopefully go to other countries, too.

E WOODS: And she even got mad at me the other day...

POOR: I did.

E WOODS: ...'Cause I left dinner with everyone, and I went to the movies by myself to go see "Vice" (laughter).

POOR: I know. Why didn't you invite me (laughter)?

E WOODS: Ah, next time, next time.

POOR: Oh, plus, I - we get to see each other in all different color clothing because...

E WOODS: Right.

POOR: In prison, Earlonne always had to wear blue. And I always wore black.

GROSS: You had to make sure...

E WOODS: I like my colors bright these days.

POOR: You can't blend into what the guys inside wear. So you can't wear blue, which is what they wear. And then I saw him in this awesome, orange T-shirt that had some brown in it. It looked so good on you.

E WOODS: Hey, I'm trying.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah. So I want to ask you each to choose one thing that you would like to change in the system of - in the prison system or in mass incarceration. And, Earlonne, since you served so much time, let's start with you.

E WOODS: I, personally, would like to eradicate California's three strikes law because I think that there's a lot of people that's sentenced under this law, which everybody thinks is 25 to life. No, people get up to a thousand years to life for something that they've done in their past. And you may be incarcerated 15, 20 years. You may be a changed individual, all the way changed, would never commit another crime. But the law don't see your rehabilitation. So you'll never get the opportunity to be in front of people to present the person that you are today.

And I have a lot of friends that's in prison that has 200 years, 300 years to life for maybe attempted second-degree robbery. And they won't get that opportunity to present the person that they are today. So I believe that crimes have sentencing under them. You know what I'm saying? A person can get certain - a certain amount of time for the crime that they commit. The rest of it is just an enhancement. So me, personally, I would eradicate the three strikes law in California. And I believe, personally, that that will ease overcrowding because there are a lot of people in prison that deserve to be out.

GROSS: And you basically just described your own situation when you were incarcerated because you got 31 to life for attempted second-degree robbery.

E WOODS: Correct.

GROSS: Did I get that right? Yeah.

E WOODS: Correct, yeah.

GROSS: And that was because - you got such a long sentence because one crime had you convicted on two counts, so that counted as two strikes.

E WOODS: Correct.

GROSS: Nigel, what about you?

POOR: Well, I would like to see more programs created that allow people inside and outside to work together as colleagues. And I think it would help demystify a lot of the assumptions that people have about who's in prison and who should be there. And it would give the people inside the opportunity to stretch themselves intellectually and emotionally, so just creating more of a connection.

GROSS: And you're describing Ear Hustle.

POOR: Isn't that funny?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.

POOR: Earlonne described himself, and I described myself. I don't know. Does that mean we're self-absorbed?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, I think it also means that you're doing things based on what you've learned from...

POOR: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...Personal experience, so yeah.

POOR: Yeah.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much. And, Earlonne, again, I want to thank - I want to congratulate you again for your new freedom. And, Nigel and Earlonne, I want to wish you good luck with the retooled version of Ear Hustle now that Earlonne is out. I look forward to hearing...

E WOODS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: ...The new, as yet, unannounced host will be with you (laughter).

POOR: Yes, it's very exciting.

GROSS: And, Earlonne, I look forward to your interviews with people who, like you, are transitioning back into society from prison. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

E WOODS: You're welcome. Thank you.

POOR: Thank you.

GROSS: Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor are the co-creators, co-producers and co-hosts of the podcast Ear Hustle, which features interviews with men incarcerated in San Quentin. Earlonne Woods was released from San Quentin in November after his sentence was commuted by Governor Jerry Brown. Nigel Poor is a professor of photography at California State University in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOEL BONNEVIE'S "DAHIL SA'YO")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Sigrid Nunez. Her latest novel "The Friend" won the National Book Award for fiction and is about to be published in paperback. It's about a writer whose friend and former mentor kills himself. She inherits his dog, a 180-pound Great Dane, who, like her, is grieving. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOEL BONNEVIE'S "DAHIL SA'YO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.