08 January, 2019
In the American state of California, prisoners are usually able to get out of jail before their sentence is completed.
Some prisoners win a conditional, or temporary, release from jail through acts of kindness or by doing good things. Others are approved for release after showing a change in behavior, like becoming a religious leader or advising others against drug use.
But for Walter "Earlonne" Woods, the path to freedom was a podcast.
Woods was released from the San Quentin State Prison after serving 21 years of a 31-year jail sentence for attempted armed robbery. Last November, California Governor Jerry Brown cancelled his sentence. Brown noted Woods' leadership in helping other prisoners and his work on "Ear Hustle," a podcast in which he talks about everyday life inside the prison.
The show has been very successful since it was launched in 2017. It has been downloaded 20 million times by people all over the world.
On the program, Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, a prison volunteer, talk with San Quentin prisoners about their struggles.
Some prisoners talk about the difficulty of sharing a 1.5 meter by 3-meter room with another person. Others tell why they take care of frogs or insects as if they were household pets. Some describe the effects of solitary confinement or being given a death sentence.
Woods helps listeners understand prison life. Poor is a San Francisco Bay Area artist who has volunteered at San Quentin since 2011. She asks thoughtful questions that sometimes lead prisoners to seriously consider what put them in prison.
Woods said the podcast offers listeners a closer look into lives most people do not spend much time thinking about.
"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."
Jerry Brown agreed. In the letter issued to end his sentence, the now former governor wrote that Woods "has clearly shown that he is no longer the man he was when he committed this crime."
The podcast project started after Poor contacted Woods.
In 2016, Poor heard about a podcast talent competition. She asked San Quentin's spokesman, Sam Robinson, for permission to enter the prison. Another co-creator, Antwan Williams, agreed to do sound design for the project. Williams is serving 15 years for armed robbery.
Poor said their idea for a podcast from San Quentin beat more than 1,500 other proposals from 53 countries and received support from of a group of broadcasters. She added, "Everyone was shocked when we won, especially the prison."
"Ear Hustle" has found international success. Listeners send cards and letters from as far away as New Zealand, Qatar and Mauritius. The free show can be heard in prisons throughout California and Britain.
One program talked about Woods' first day as a free man. The first thing Woods did after his release on November 30 was get a look at the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco Bay. It looked, in his words, "as far as the eye can see."
New "Ear Hustle" shows will be released later this year. They will include stories of Woods' life outside of prison. The show will also have discussions with other prisoners released after long sentences. Woods and Poor plan to visit maximum-security jails and tell the stories of their prisoners.
"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."
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Olga R. Rodriguez reported this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted her report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
pet – n. an animal that people keep mainly for pleasure
podcast – n. a program such as a music or news program that is like a radio or television show but that is downloaded over the Internet
solitary confinement – n. the state of being kept alone in a prison cell away from other prisoners
maximum – adj. the greatest value or level of something
talent – n. the natural ability of a person in a field or activity
dumb – adj. lacking in intelligence