This Is Ear Hustle

Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life


August 30, 2022 | ISBN 9780593238882


October 19, 2021 | ISBN 9780593238875

About the Book

A “profound, sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking” (The New York Times) view of prison life, as told by currently and formerly incarcerated people, from the co-creators and co-hosts of the Peabody- and Pulitzer-nominated podcast Ear Hustle

“A must-read for fans of the legendary podcast and all those who seek to understand crime, punishment, and mass incarceration in America.”—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black

When Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods met, Nigel was a photography professor volunteering with the Prison University Project and Earlonne was serving thirty-one years to life at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Initially drawn to each other by their shared interest in storytelling, neither had podcast production experience when they decided to enter Radiotopia’s contest for new shows . . . and won. Using the prize for seed money, Nigel and Earlonne launched Ear Hustle, named after the prison term for “eavesdropping.” It was the first podcast created and produced entirely within prison and would go on to be heard millions of times worldwide, garner Peabody and Pulitzer award nominations, and help earn Earlonne his freedom when his sentence was commuted in 2018. 

In This Is Ear Hustle, Nigel and Earlonne share their own stories of how they came to San Quentin, how they created their phenomenally popular podcast amid extreme limitations, and what has kept them collaborating season after season. They present new stories, all with the same insight, balance, and rapport that distinguish the podcast. In an era when more than two million people are incarcerated across the United States—a number that grows by 600,000 annually—Nigel and Earlonne explore the full and often surprising realities of prison life. With characteristic candor and humor, their moving portrayals include unexpected moments of self-discovery, unlikely alliances, inspirational resilience, and ingenious work-arounds.

One personal narrative at a time, framed by Nigel’s and Earlonne’s distinct perspectives, This Is Ear Hustle reveals the complexity of life for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people while illuminating the shared experiences of humanity that unite us all.
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Praise for This Is Ear Hustle

“A Prison University Project professor and a formerly incarcerated man bring together evocative first-person accounts from those who previously served in prison and those who remain there today in a starkly honest series of conversations.”Newsweek

“In this unforgettable book, Nigel Poor, Earlonne Woods, and a range of fascinating people generously share their prison stories, inviting readers to understand human struggle in an inhumane system via humor, contemplation, and community.”—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black
This Is Ear Hustle is a jewel. Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods are gifted storytellers, and their ability to draw intimate, authentic stories out of others is extraordinary. With grace and humor they walk through what life is really like behind bars, showing the humanity and depth of those they meet inside.”—Catherine Burns, artistic director, The Moth
“I listen to Ear Hustle because it doesn’t travel on the surface of the prison experience but dives deep into the humanity and transformation of those behind the walls with raw and authentic representation of the real San Quentin. Nigel and Earlonne find a way to take a world that is invisible to most and make it relatable to everyday life through stories of love, joy, family, and resilience—with a magical sense of hope.”—Scott Budnick, film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

“The gift of the Ear Hustle podcast is that it’s just as revelatory for people who’ve done a bid as it is for those who have no idea what hearing a cell door closing really feels like. This Is Ear Hustle is the bildungsroman of one of the most influential pieces of art, broadcast journalism, and reportage to ever come out of a prison. Nigel and Earlonne have created a soundscape that is as inventive as it is provocative, and their book shows why we ear hustle, and why, somehow, sometimes, it makes us feel like we were there.”—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon

“I’m a big fan of these two angels of the radio, Earlonne and Nigel, whose dreamy collaboration, a conversation I love to listen in on, gives me joy and amusement, and also: hope.”—Rachel Kushner, author of The Hard Crowd and The Mars Room
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This Is Ear Hustle

Chapter One


I grew up in the late 1970s in South Central Los Angeles in a two-parent home with my older brother, Trevor. My mother, Alyce Faye Woods, worked for the post office. My father, Walter Earl Woods, was an alcoholic who hustled in the streets and never really had a job. We only interacted when I was in trouble. He never played with me, never watched me play sports, never talked to me, never helped me with my homework—but he’d fasho whoop my ass . . . like I wasn’t learning what he was teaching.

Trevor and I fought a lot—as brothers do—but he was also my protector. He was four years older, so my parents always left him in charge. To him, that meant he owned me and had the right to beat me up as he pleased. I’d always be the one crying after a round of fisticuffs. One time he beat me up badly enough that I was hungry for revenge, so I conceived of a plot to get back at him. I paid close attention and observed his routine when he was watching football. He’d lounge on the couch until the commercials came on, at which point he’d always get up to do something. Every time he ran back to the couch—without fail—he’d do a swan dive right into his pillow, headfirst . . . Hmm. At the next opportunity, I was prepared. As soon as he got up, I quickly removed the pillow from the case and shoved a typewriter in its place, fluffed it, then ran outside. I watched through a crack in the door as the game came back on and, true to form, he did his swan dive head-first into the couch. POW!

“AHHHHOOOW!!! Um’ma kick yo ass!”

Chalk up a victory for the little guy.

When I think about some of the earliest contributing factors in my introduction to crime, I go to 1978 and ’79, when my brother would sneak into my parents’ room when they were sleeping, and quietly bring our dad’s pants out of the room. He’d rifle through, take a dollar or two, and give me fifty cents, which I earned by being the one to creep back in and put the pants back. I’d use my fifty cents to buy as many boxes of Lemonheads, Now & Laters, or sunflower seeds as I could afford. I’d sell a ten-cent pack of Now & Laters for a quarter at school, and be the man that day—I was a hustler before I even knew what that meant.

Parmelee Avenue Elementary School, where I went from second through sixth grade, was located in the heart of my neighborhood, on the east side of South Central Los Angeles. School interested me—not the education aspect so much as the getting-in-trouble part. I was embarrassed throughout my time in elementary school, because my classmates could read but I couldn’t. Due to lack of practice or desire, I didn’t really learn how to read until closer to junior high. Maybe it was a defense mechanism, but the class clown mask fit me perfectly. Plus, I was a magnet for trouble.

I took note of the fact that one class got out of school at 12:30 p.m., while the rest of us got out at 2:15. I investigated how I could get into that class and, after a few weeks of plotting, I too was getting out at 12:30. I had played myself into the special education class, and I was damn proud of it. The schoolwork was easy and no one else could read either. Unfortunately, my mother caught wind eventually and voiced her concerns. As a result, I was shipped to an after-school learning center called Kedren, where they sit you down with private tutors. Awww man . . . I f***ed up.

During lunchtime, you’d get a tray and slide it down the conveyor, telling the cafeteria worker what you wanted. I guess there was a sign somewhere declaring “YOU MUST EAT EVERYTHING ON YOUR PLATE,” but I sure couldn’t read it. One day, I left some untouched spinach on my plate, and the staff told me that if I didn’t eat it I’d have to go to “the box”: a room with nothing in it but a mirror. So there I was, standing in this tiny room that was about the size of a school bathroom stall, looking at myself in the mirror. Bored, I took out my house keys and carved my name in the wall. My mother had to come get me and, when they told her that I had carved my name in the wall, I insisted that they were lying—I did no such thing! They gave me every opportunity to tell the truth, but I stuck to my story.

That was the first time I learned about mirrors you could see through. They literally led me to the other side. Wow. They had watched me do it. They showed my mother where I had written “KAOS” (my nickname for a while). There was drywall dust on the floor from the carving—shit, it was probably still on my keys too—but I held my ground, stubbornly. My only response was to keep it real, claiming, “I didn’t write on no wall.”

When I wasn’t making trouble in school, I was playing park ball. Our sponsors were the local county sheriff’s department. It was all about community. There were Black detectives from the Firestone Park Station who spent their off-time coaching and mentoring the youth in the neighborhood. As a youngster I really looked up to police officers—those guys were involved in my life. I came to know them well. Myself and other local kids used to go up to their offices and hang out with them. If they were ever driving through the neighborhood and saw us, they would often pull over, jump out, and just have a conversation with us. I respected them.

That all changed when I was nine years old. I was at Roosevelt Park leaving the swimming pool. Across the street, on the railroad tracks, a long train of “K” Line containers followed by hot dog–shaped chemical tanks went rolling by. The caboose passed and I watched the train go down the track for about a mile, but the railroad crossing gates never lifted. Cars started driving around the guard gates, so I did what I’d done before: I lifted one of the train-crossing arms to let cars go by. Motorists seemed to appreciate my gesture, though not trusting a nine-year-old’s judgment, the drivers all looked both ways to make sure a train wasn’t coming.

About four or five minutes later, a couple of sheriffs I didn’t know pulled up and yelled at me to put my hands on the hood of their car. I let go of the gates and followed their instructions. They rifled through my shorts pockets, put me in handcuffs, and placed me in the back of the police car. None of the drivers stopped to see why they were messing with me. And initially, I truly thought they were just playing. But then both of the officers got in the car, closed the doors, and told me I was going to jail. I started crying immediately, but they just ignored me. On the way to jail, they got a call about a local disturbance, so they took me on tour to some grocery market. While they were in the store, I sat in the back of the police car as people walked by, looking at me as I bawled my eyes out, hoping someone would just open the door and let me go.

When we finally made it to the sheriff’s department, they put me in a cell with nothing in it. I was terrified. I had to pee, so I started knocking on the door as officers passed by, asking if I could please use the bathroom. They all ignored me, like I wasn’t their business (as if I were not nine years old). I had to go bad, but I didn’t want to get in trouble for peeing on the floor. Left without any other choice, I took off my checkerboard Vans shoes and urinated in them. That was the only thing that made sense to me.

I stayed in that holding cell all day. They couldn’t reach my parents; my mother was at work and my father was in the streets. I gave them the only phone number I knew by heart, for my Auntie Donzell, my mother’s older sister. The sheriffs eventually dropped me off at her house, about three miles away. I don’t remember what she had to say about it. I only remember my father’s words the next day, when he came to get me: “You know um’ma beat your ass when we get home.” He had nothing to say to me except those words. Tears started falling. He never once asked me what had happened. All he needed to know was that I’d been arrested.

I had to show up with my family in juvenile court, because—as I would learn—lifting those guardrails is a federal crime. I genuinely thought I was being a Good Samaritan. To make it far worse, I discovered in court that those sheriffs had lied about me, claiming I was charging each car a dollar to go by. I didn’t have a penny on me when they took me into custody.

Weekends as a kid were times for tuning into Kung Fu Theater. I remember a specific Monday, when my friend Julian “JuJu” Arnold and I were sparring, doing our rendition of karate and pretending to be Bruce Leroy. I must have karate-chopped JuJu too hard, because suddenly we started American fighting. He had a gang called the JuJu Gang, so after I fought him I had to fight the rest of them, one at a time. I performed righteously—mainly because of all the experience I had fighting off my older brother. JuJu and I both got suspended from school, but our fight didn’t stop us from being friends.

About the Author

Nigel Poor
Nigel Poor is the co-creator, co-host, and co-producer of Ear Hustle (PRX & Radiotopia). A visual artist and photography professor at California State University, Sacramento, Nigel has had her work has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the SFMOMA and de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 2011, Nigel got involved with San Quentin State Prison as a volunteer teacher for the Prison University Project. More by Nigel Poor
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About the Author

Earlonne Woods
Earlonne Woods is the co-creator, co-host, and co-producer of Ear Hustle (PRX & Radiotopia). In 1997, Earlonne was sentenced to thirty-one years to life in prison. While incarcerated, he received his GED, attended Coastline Community College, and completed many vocational programs. He also founded CHOOSE1, which aims to repeal the California Three Strikes Law, the statute under which he was sentenced. In November 2018, then–California Governor Jerry Brown commuted Earlonne’s sentence after twenty-one years of incarceration and Earlonne became a full-time producer for Ear Hustle. His efforts with CHOOSE1 continue, as he advocates for restorative justice and works to place a repeal initiative on the ballot in 2022. More by Earlonne Woods
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