An un­likely path to free­dom

One-time Cal­i­for­nia in­mate uses pod­cast to de­tail life in prison

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - LIFE | CLASSIFIEDS - OLGA R. RO­DRIGUEZ

In Cal­i­for­nia, in­mates typ­i­cally are granted pa­role by do­ing good deeds or show­ing they have been re­ha­bil­i­tated by be­com­ing pas­tors, drug coun­sel­lors or youth ad­vo­cates. For Wal­ter (Ear­lonne) Woods, the path to free­dom was pod­cast­ing.

Woods, 47, was re­cently re­leased from San Quentin State Prison af­ter Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown com­muted his 31-years-to-life sen­tence for at­tempted armed rob­bery. Brown — whose last day as gov­er­nor is Jan. 7 — cited Woods’s lead­er­ship in help­ing other in­mates and his work at Ear Hus­tle (earhus­t­lesq.com).

Woods has since been hired as a full-time pro­ducer for the often funny and at times heart-wrench­ing pod­cast, which has been a smash­ing suc­cess since its launch in 2017. The show’s roughly 30 episodes have been down­loaded 20 mil­lion times by fans all over the world.

Lis­ten­ers have praised Ear Hus­tle on­line as “eye-open­ing” and “in­cred­i­bly hu­man­iz­ing.” But for Woods, one of the most mean­ing­ful re­views came from the gov­er­nor’s of­fice when they called with the good news.

“The one thing that the lady said, you know, she told me, ‘We love the pod­cast in this of­fice,’ ” Woods said of the com­mu­ta­tion call from Brown’s of­fice. “I don’t know if the gov­er­nor lis­tens, but peo­ple in his of­fice lis­ten. Peo­ple re­ally like what we do.”

Dur­ing their pod­cast, Woods and fel­low cre­ator and out­side co-host, prison vol­un­teer Nigel Poor, give lis­ten­ers a peek into the hard­ships and small joys of men in­car­cer­ated at the medium-se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity. In in­ter­views with the hosts, in­mates dis­cuss strug­gles such as find­ing a com­pat­i­ble cell­mate to share a five-by-10-foot (1.5-by three-me­tre) cell, share why they take care of frogs or black widow spi­ders as if they were pets, or de­scribe the im­pact of soli­tary con­fine­ment or be­ing on death row.

Woods, an af­fa­ble man with a quick smile and a sharp sense of hu­mour, helps lis­ten­ers un­der­stand prison life, while Poor brings an out­sider’s per­spec­tive, ask­ing in­sight­ful ques­tions that at times push in­mates to re­flect on what put them be­hind bars.

Woods, an af­fa­ble man with a quick smile and a sharp sense of hu­mour, helps lis­ten­ers un­der­stand prison life, while Poor brings an out­sider’s per­spec­tive, ask­ing in­sight­ful ques­tions that at times push in­mates to re­flect on what put them be­hind bars.

The pod­cast of­fers lis­ten­ers an in­ti­mate look into lives so­ci­ety doesn’t spend much time think­ing about, said Woods, who spent 21 years be­hind bars.

“Peo­ple get to see the car chases. They get to see the trial. But they don’t know what hap­pens af­ter you get to prison,” Woods said. “We’ve been able to re­ally hu­man­ize peo­ple, and peo­ple re­al­ize that those in prison are just peo­ple who made dumb de­ci­sions.”

Brown agreed, and in his com­mu­ta­tion let­ter, is­sued Nov. 21 —the day be­fore the U.S. Thanks­giv­ing — the gov­er­nor said that Woods “has clearly shown that he is no longer the man he was when he com­mit­ted this crime.”

“He has set a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple for his peers and, through his pod­cast, has shared mean­ing­ful sto­ries from those in­side prison,” Brown wrote.

The pod­cast project started af­ter Poor, a San Fran­cisco Bay Area artist who has vol­un­teered at San Quentin since 2011, ap­proached Woods.

In 2016, Poor saw Pub­lic Ra­dio Ex­change’s Ra­diotopia net­work was spon­sor­ing a pod­cast tal­ent con­test, and she asked Lt. Sam Robin­son, San Quentin’s spokesman, for per­mis­sion to en­ter. An­other co-cre­ator, Ant­wan Wil­liams, who is serv­ing 15 years for armed rob­bery, came on board to do its sound de­sign.

Their pitch beat more than 1,500 con­tes­tants from 53 coun­tries, and they re­ceived the back­ing of a group of ra­dio pro­fes­sion­als, Poor said.

“Ev­ery­one was shocked when we won, es­pe­cially the prison. Lt. Robin­son told me he let us en­ter be­cause he never thought we would win,” she said, laugh­ing. Ear Hus­tle — eaves­drop­ping, in prison slang — has found in­ter­na­tional suc­cess, with fans send­ing cards and let­ters from as far as New Zealand, Qatar in the Mid­dle East, and Mau­ri­tius in East Africa. The free show also can be ac­cessed in pris­ons through­out Cal­i­for­nia and the United King­dom. New episodes are posted ev­ery cou­ple of weeks.

Julie Shapiro, Ra­diotopia ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, de­scribes the pod­cast as a “roller-coaster of emo­tions” that chal­lenges what peo­ple un­der­stand about life in prison. “Peo­ple don’t ex­pect to have some­thing in com­mon with those telling their sto­ries from prison, but the de­tails of their lives res­onate with lis­ten­ers be­cause they hear these men en­counter daily life in some of the same ways that we do,” Shapiro said.

The out­pour­ing of love and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the show has grown since Woods an­nounced on a Nov. 24 episode that Brown com­muted his sen­tence.

The first thing Woods did af­ter walk­ing through the prison gates on Nov. 30 was take in the view of the San Fran­cisco Bay and of the ocean “as far as the eye can see.” An episode fea­tured his first mo­ments as a free man.

(In Canada, CBC Ra­dio One se­ries Spark — hosted by Nora Young — broad­casted two sto­ries on Ear Hus­tle, in­clud­ing one on Woods’s re­ac­tion to his new-found free­dom.)

Since then, he’s been notic­ing new styles, like women ev­ery­where in yoga pants, and peo­ple walk­ing through the streets with their heads bowed. He quickly re­al­ized they were look­ing at their smart­phones, which didn’t ex­ist when he started his sen­tence in 1997. Woods has also spent time peo­ple-watch­ing at a high-end de­part­ment store, vis­ited Dis­ney­land in Cal­i­for­nia and re­cently made eggs for the first time in two decades. The fourth sea­son of Ear Hus­tle, which will be re­leased this sum­mer, will fea­ture sto­ries of his reen­try to so­ci­ety and in­ter­views with other in­mates re­leased af­ter long sen­tences. He and Poor also plan to visit max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pris­ons and tell the sto­ries of pris­on­ers there.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple that’s in there that should be out,” Woods said. “I cre­ated a pod­cast, but I’m not the ex­cep­tion.”

BEN MAR­GOT/AP

Ear­lonne Woods shows record­ing equip­ment sim­i­lar to what he used inSan Quentin State Prison to pro­duce his pod­casts, dur­ing an in­ter­view in Oak­land, Calif. Woods, 47, was re­cently re­leased from San Quentin prison af­ter Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown com­muted his 31-years-to-life sen­tence for at­tempted armed rob­bery. Brown cited Woods’ lead­er­ship in help­ing other in­mates and his work at Ear Hus­tle, a pod­cast he co-hosts and co-pro­duces that doc­u­ments ev­ery­day life in­side the prison. Ear Hus­tle launched in 2017. Its roughly 30 episodes have been down­loaded a to­tal of 20 mil­lion times by fans all over the world.

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