There's a glut of true-crime podcasts right now, but only one delivers on its promise to take listeners behind bars. Ear Hustle—prison slang for eavesdropping—is co-produced by inmates in California's San Quentin prison.
California is one of the most carceral states in the nation, but the world inside places like San Quentin is often hidden from those fortunate enough to exist outside the system. The podcast lets prisoners explain everything from the mundane to the harrowing: the fraught process of finding a new cellmate, how conjugal visits work, the unwritten rules of race, and how the inmates arrived in their current confines.
Unlike the stereotypes typically found in TV dramas, the inmates of Ear Hustle are funny, thoughtful, and complicated.
There's Drew the Party Planner, who keeps track of the birthdays of 168 other prisoners and makes birthday cards for them. There's Rauch (pronounced "Roach"), a shy hippie who has kept dozens of contraband bugs and small critters in his cell over the years. "I take care of animals because they teach me what I can't learn from people," he says.
One episode interviews four inmates who spent stretches in Security Housing Units, California's dreaded long-term solitary lockup at Pelican Bay State Prison. The podcast raises hard questions about prison conditions and the dignity of the people on the inside. It's a vital and illuminating look at the day-to-day lives of the real people warehoused by America's unprecedented experiment in mass incarceration.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Ear Hustle".