Nigel Poor, producer of prison podcast
San Quentin State Prison may not be as bad as you think. Despite housing death row, most of the infamous prison is medium security. So, many incarcerated men spend their days working and taking classes—giving the institution a vibe vaguely similar to a “community college,” said Nigel Poor, a digital artist and professor at Sacramento State, who first went to the prison in 2011 to teach photography classes. She became fascinated by prison life after browsing through the prison’s archives, so, along with two incarcerated men, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, she started producing a podcast recorded within San Quentin’s walls called Ear Hustle (slang for eavesdropping), which launches in June.
What’s in the San Quentin archives?
It’s an incredible collection of thousands and thousands of photographs that range from things that are really difficult to look at to funny images. Like guys playing basketball on donkeys to murders and suicides and weddings. It’s just such a mix.
How do you feel about San Quentin’s lingering perceptions?
It’s an infamous prison. People are shocked to find out that it’s not maximum. But in some ways, I think that works for us. It still carries that stigma so I think it will surprise people to learn about what it’s actually like there.
How long will most of the men be incarcerated?
A majority of the men are serving life sentences. But they’ve worked their way down from maximum security. So a lot of them are three-strikers. They’ve committed murder. They’ve done some pretty difficult crimes. But they’ve also been incarcerated for 10, 20, 30 years. So they’re very different people than they were when they were 18.
So for a lot of them, San Quentin is their home?
Exactly. And everyone wants their home to be a safe place and a place where you work, where you have hobbies. You do all those things that people do on the outside, it’s just inside a cloistered society. I had the same assumptions that a lot of people do: that prison is going to be all violence. And everyone you meet is going to be horrible. But it’s just not the case. It’s like anywhere. There’s all types of people inside. And there’s a lot of people who are trying to make reparations and become better, more fully formed people.
Why is it important to give them partial control over this podcast?
It’s super important. I’m not incarcerated. I don’t want to speak for them. I think that would be very wrong. What’s really interesting to me is that incarcerated and nonincarcerated people can have a really respectful, professional relationship. And to me, that’s one of the coolest parts of it.
What do you want people to think about when they hear these narratives?
I’m hoping that it will add to a conversation about what do prisons mean in our country. What do we want out of them? Do we believe in rehabilitation? Can we see people who commit crimes as more three-dimensional people? Can we have some kind of empathy, while, at the same time, not letting people off the hook for what they’ve done? We don’t let them get away with minimizing their crimes or their victims. I know a lot about what they’ve done. So I try to just think about the person they are in front of me at that time.
One episode is about pets in prison. What types?
Birds, mice, lizards, fish, all kinds of insects, gophers, rabbits. It’s wild. This guy that we’re doing a story on, he came in the lab the other day and he brought me this box that had like 50 snails in it. And they were all just moving around in there. So it’s not traditional pets, but they serve the same purpose.
So not all prison stories are dark?
Exactly. We have a story about a guy whose specialty is making birthday celebrations for his friends in prison. So he has to try to figure out, using what he can find in prison, how to make decorations. I just didn’t expect that these guys who you think are going to be so hard are caring about somebody needing a special day. And the other thing about that story is it touches a little on race. Because race is an issue in prison, and this guy does birthday parties for both white and black guys. And that’s a little bit unusual. I don’t know how much guys like to talk about it. But there are unwritten rules about how races interact.
Are people surprised you’re part of this project?
There’s challenges around why am I, as a [54 year-old] white woman, doing this? Why should I be in a prison? And it’s funny, when I talked to Erlonne and Antwan about it, they always say, “It’s such a weirdly racist thing to say because it means people assume everyone in prison is black.” I hadn’t thought about that. They have great answers for things.