Scroll through Netflix or any App Store, and odds are you will see countless shows exploring the criminal justice system.
The popularity of shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “Prison Break” and “Lockup” suggests Americans are fascinated by the carceral state and, particularly, about what it’s like to be imprisoned in “the land of the free.”
Although some programs, such as “Orange…” involve the collaboration of formerly incarcerated consultants, most prison shows can best be described as “prison voyeurism.”
They provide entertainment with a dose of empathy, without much education.
Recently, though, podcasting has opened up new opportunities for people directly impacted by the criminal justice system to share their insights and experiences with the public— not just as fictional characters or interviewees, but as interviewers, creators and producers.
Unlike television or even radio, podcasting requires little money and expertise. Anyone with an internet connection can do it, lowering the barriers to entry. In the past year, two podcasts, Ear Hustle and Decarcerated, have been launched, creating a new genre of long-form storytelling, one which serves to promote a deeper cultural understanding of the impacts of the carceral state.
Here’s a review of their work so far, a preview of a third podcast that has recently debuted, and an assessment of the medium’s potential for broadening the conversation around criminal justice reform.
“Ear Hustle” premiered in the summer of 2017 after it was selected by Radiotopia as the winner of its Podquest 2016 competition, and has quickly become the most famous criminal justice podcast since “Serial,” garnering more than 7 million downloads.
A partnership between Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, two African-American men currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, and Nigel Poor, a white, free-world visual artist, each episode of Ear Hustle introduces a theme which people on the outside can relate to (such as pesky roommates, race, or pets), and asks a handful of prisoners to share stories on this theme.
The stories range from endearing to shocking, comedic to tragic, and introduce the audience to the nuances of life behind bars. Generally, the podcast skews to the lighthearted and comical, less interested in identifying systemic injustices than in showing “a more three-dimensional view of prison,” as Poor has said in interviews.
She added, in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, that “life in prison is tough and frightening, but it’s also funny, tender, and amusing.”
In this way, “Ear Hustle” is similar to “Orange is the New Black”: it depicts prison life as simultaneously joyful and oppressive, with a focus on encouraging compassion for incarcerated people.
As an activist oral historian with incarcerated friends, I appreciate the opportunity “Ear Hustle” gives to people like me, on the outside, to hear directly from currently incarcerated people, and the ways it encourages people on the outside to question our assumptions about prisoners.
Additionally, the creation of the show provides incarcerated people an opportunity to learn digital media skills, and, most importantly, a public platform.
However, I struggle with its lack of critique of the penal system, and its limited inquiry into people’s lives. While a few of the first season’s episodes include discussion of human rights injustices—including solitary confinement, parole, and aging in prison—the majority of the podcast is dedicated to normalizing life in prison and the people who live it, rather than making the case for change.
In an interview with The Marshall Project, incarcerated co-creator Williams explained their strategy of getting listeners to empathize with prisoners so that down the line they will be motivated to join their cause.
“We think putting names and faces to the people that are incarcerated….is speaking towards the politics,” he said.
Creators have also named not wanting to invite the censorship of the prison administration or to offend victim’s families as factors in the selection of content. While a nuanced take on prison is much needed, “Ear Hustle” may veer too far in its quest to humanize; it is possible to come away from some episodes with no sense of the everyday torture that the 242,000 people incarcerated in California are subject to on any given day, but rather an appreciation for the prison’s benevolence and support for incarcerated people.
The question of whether we need prisons at all never arises.
“Ear Hustle” also limits the extent to which listeners get to know interviewees, by jumping from person to person rapidly within most episodes. As a result, listeners only glimpse snapshots of their lives—Rauch’s relationship with animals, Greg’s marriage—but the show only occasionally delves deeply into an interviewee’s subjectivity or life history.
While the podcast helps audiences get to know prisoners as ordinary people, and breaks boundaries by allowing listeners to hear directly from people currently incarcerated, it doesn’t ask us to reflect on our own complicity in their incarceration.
“Decarcerated” is produced by Marlon Peterson, a formerly incarcerated young African American, and features intimate one-on-one interviews in each episode. Launched in 2017, its declared mission is “highlight the journeys of resilience, redemption and success of formerly incarcerated people.”
In each episode, Peterson interviews a different formerly incarcerated person who has established herself as a leader through her life and work.
Almost all of the podcast’s guests work in social justice organizations, and several are personal friends of Peterson’s, whom he connected with either while in prison or through his advocacy following his release.
See also: Marlon Peterson’s Driving While Black
In comparison to “Ear Hustle,” Peterson takes more of an oral history approach to his interviews, devoting an entire hour to asking people about their journeys from childhood to prison to their current work, with many detours along the way.
These interviews are recorded live and posted with minimal editing, meaning that Peterson must gauge his guest’s interest in talking about different parts of their lives and react accordingly.
Although many of his guests have told their stories before in other public fora, some of the best interviews involve guests reflecting on their lives in new ways. Their willingness to engage with different topics is constantly in flux, making the interviews feel spontaneous and intimate.
Ultimately, the podcast’s biggest strength is Peterson’s relationship with his guests, which invites them to bring their full selves to the table. When interviewing people famous within the criminal justice reform world (including Andrea James, Donna Hylton and Khalil Cumberbatch), who do a great deal of public speaking, Peterson’s shared identity as a formerly incarcerated person and his obvious admiration for his guests leads them to share personal, vulnerable stories they have not told in previous interviews or talks.
Additionally, Peterson helps guests connect their personal stories to their current work and systemic analyses, and guests feel comfortable pushing back when they don’t like the direction Peterson is leading them.
For instance, in poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts’ episode, Peterson asks Betts about how he excelled in school prior to his incarceration at the age of 16. Betts responds by articulating how he wants his narrative framed:
RDB: First, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been reluctant to kind of put it forth that way. I know that you’re not doing this, but I’ve found that a lot of other people have used the fact that I was an honors student, that I liked books, that I was doing good in school, as a means of trying to distinguish me from other cats that end up in prison. And part of my narrative, and part of what I, want to say, you know, is that I’m more like them than others realize. And a lot of this story, a lot of this narrative, is about access to opportunities. (4:44-5:15)
By creating a level of comfort and space, Peterson allows guests to shape their own stories, an opportunity typically denied people targeted by the carceral state, whether behind bars or outside.
“Decarcerated” pays respect to its guests’ agency, with Peterson ending every episode saying, “You are living an important life.”
“Ear Hustle” and “Decarcerated” are two of the best podcasts to listen to for commentary from directly impacted, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, exploring the fundamental issue of the distance and stigma attached to people who have been incarcerated in radically different ways.
While “Earhustle” brings together short, diverse perspectives on thematic issues, “Decarcerated” takes a life history and advocacy approach.
A new one that is also worth mentioning is “Caught: The Lives of Juvenile Justice.”
This new podcast from WNYC Studios featuring young people currently navigating the juvenile justice system, will add its own take on these questions.
As more people who are directly impacted create podcasts, we will see if they satisfy creators’ goals to propel listeners into action.
“Our listeners want to hear these stories—and then they want to take it a step further and act for justice.”
Editors’ Note: Know of other interesting podcasts related to the justice system? Please let us know, and we’ll share with TCR readers!
elly kalfus is currently a Masters student in Columbia University’s Oral History program, where she is exploring the use of oral history to create collaborative storytelling projects with people impacted by the carceral state. She co-founded Ballots Over Bars, a campaign for prisoners’ suffrage in Massachusetts and abroad, and is inspired by the risk-taking, creativity and brilliance of incarcerated and marginalized people across the world. She welcomes readers’ comments.