Want to Understand Mass Incarceration? Listen to These Podcasts

Scroll through Netflix or any Application Store, and odds are you will see plenty of exhibits discovering the legal justice process.

The reputation of exhibits like “Orange is the New Black,” “Prison Break” and “Lockup” suggests Americans are fascinated by the carceral state and, specifically, about what it’s like to be imprisoned in “the land of the free.”

Whilst some plans, this sort of as “Orange…” entail the collaboration of formerly incarcerated consultants, most jail exhibits can ideal be explained as “prison voyeurism.”

They offer leisure with a dose of empathy, without significantly education and learning.

A short while ago, even though, podcasting has opened up new chances for people directly impacted by the legal justice process to share their insights and encounters with the public— not just as fictional people or interviewees, but as interviewers, creators and producers.

Compared with television or even radio, podcasting involves little money and expertise. Anybody with an internet connection can do it, decreasing the limitations to entry. In the previous calendar year, two podcasts, Ear Hustle and Decarcerated, have been launched, generating a new genre of very long-variety storytelling, 1 which serves to boost a deeper cultural understanding of the impacts of the carceral state.

Here’s a overview of their operate so considerably, a preview of a 3rd podcast that has just lately debuted, and an assessment of the medium’s possible for broadening the conversation close to legal justice reform.

Ear Hustle

Ear Hustle

“Ear Hustle” premiered in the summer months of 2017 right after it was chosen by Radiotopia as the winner of its Podquest 2016 competition, and has promptly turn into the most famous legal justice podcast since “Serial,” garnering far more than 7 million downloads.

A partnership among Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, two African-American males presently incarcerated in San Quentin Point out Jail, and Nigel Poor, a white, free-earth visual artist, every episode of Ear Hustle introduces a concept which people on the outside the house can relate to (this sort of as pesky roommates, race, or animals), and asks a handful of prisoners to share stories on this concept.

The stories selection from endearing to shocking, comedic to tragic, and introduce the audience to the nuances of daily life driving bars. Commonly, the podcast skews to the lighthearted and comical, considerably less interested in figuring out systemic injustices than in demonstrating “a far more 3-dimensional check out of jail,” as Poor has explained in interviews.

She included, in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Critique, that “life in jail is difficult and frightening, but it’s also amusing, tender, and amusing.”

In this way, “Ear Hustle” is similar to “Orange is the New Black”: it depicts jail daily life as at the same time joyful and oppressive, with a target on encouraging compassion for incarcerated people.

As an activist oral historian with incarcerated mates, I appreciate the option “Ear Hustle” provides to people like me, on the outside the house, to hear directly from presently incarcerated people, and the ways it encourages people on the outside the house to issue our assumptions about prisoners.

In addition, the development of the show offers incarcerated people an option to discover digital media competencies, and, most importantly, a community system.

Having said that, I battle with its deficiency of critique of the penal process, and its limited inquiry into people’s life. When a couple of of the very first season’s episodes include dialogue of human legal rights injustices—including solitary confinement, parole, and aging in prison—the vast majority of the podcast is devoted to normalizing daily life in jail and the people who reside it, somewhat than earning the scenario for improve.

In an interview with The Marshall Task, incarcerated co-creator Williams discussed their method of finding listeners to empathize with prisoners so that down the line they will be determined to join their lead to.

“We feel placing names and faces to the people that are incarcerated….is speaking toward the politics,” he explained.

Creators have also named not seeking to invite the censorship of the jail administration or to offend victim’s households as things in the range of content material. When a nuanced take on jail is significantly necessary, “Ear Hustle” might veer much too considerably in its quest to humanize it is feasible to appear away from some episodes with no feeling of the daily torture that the 242,000 people incarcerated in California are issue to on any specified day, but somewhat an appreciation for the prison’s benevolence and assist for incarcerated people.

The issue of irrespective of whether we have to have prisons at all by no means occurs.

“Ear Hustle” also restrictions the extent to which listeners get to know interviewees, by jumping from individual to individual rapidly in most episodes. As a final result, listeners only glimpse snapshots of their lives—Rauch’s relationship with animals, Greg’s marriage—but the show only from time to time delves deeply into an interviewee’s subjectivity or daily life background.

When the podcast can help audiences get to know prisoners as common people, and breaks boundaries by letting listeners to hear directly from people presently incarcerated, it doesn’t question us to replicate on our possess complicity in their incarceration.


Decarcerated“Decarcerated” is made by Marlon Peterson, a formerly incarcerated younger African American, and attributes personal 1-on-1 interviews in every episode. Released in 2017, its declared mission is “highlight the journeys of resilience, redemption and success of formerly incarcerated people.”

In every episode, Peterson interviews a distinctive formerly incarcerated individual who has set up herself as a chief through her daily life and operate.

Virtually all of the podcast’s attendees operate in social justice companies, and a number of are personal mates of Peterson’s, whom he related with possibly whilst in jail or through his advocacy pursuing his release.

See also: Marlon Peterson’s Driving When Black 

In comparison to “Ear Hustle,” Peterson takes far more of an oral background solution to his interviews, devoting an total hour to asking people about their journeys from childhood to jail to their present-day operate, with quite a few detours along the way.

These interviews are recorded reside and posted with minimum modifying, indicating that Peterson ought to gauge his guest’s interest in talking about distinctive elements of their life and respond accordingly.

Whilst quite a few of his attendees have informed their stories right before in other community fora, some of the ideal interviews entail attendees reflecting on their life in new ways. Their willingness to interact with distinctive subject areas is continually in flux, earning the interviews come to feel spontaneous and personal.

Finally, the podcast’s major strength is Peterson’s relationship with his attendees, which invites them to provide their comprehensive selves to the desk. When interviewing people famous in the legal justice reform earth (such as Andrea James, Donna Hylton and Khalil Cumberbatch), who do a fantastic deal of community speaking, Peterson’s shared id as a formerly incarcerated individual and his evident admiration for his attendees potential customers them to share personal, susceptible stories they have not informed in preceding interviews or talks.

In addition, Peterson can help attendees connect their personal stories to their present-day operate and systemic analyses, and attendees come to feel comfy pushing again when they never like the path Peterson is top them.

For instance, in poet and law firm Reginald Dwayne Betts’ episode, Peterson asks Betts about how he excelled in university prior to his incarceration at the age of 16. Betts responds by articulating how he needs his narrative framed:

RDB: To start with, as I have gotten older I have been reluctant to sort of place it forth that way. I know that you are not carrying out this, but I have observed that a large amount of other people have utilised the truth that I was an honors pupil, that I liked textbooks, that I was carrying out excellent in university, as a suggests of hoping to distinguish me from other cats that conclude up in jail. And part of my narrative, and part of what I, want to say, you know, is that I’m far more like them than some others recognize. And a large amount of this tale, a large amount of this narrative, is about obtain to chances. (4:44-5:15)

 By generating a degree of comfort and ease and place, Peterson lets attendees to form their possess stories, an option typically denied people targeted by the carceral state, irrespective of whether driving bars or outside the house.

“Decarcerated” pays respect to its guests’ agency, with Peterson ending every episode saying, “You are living an vital daily life.”

“Ear Hustle” and “Decarcerated” are two of the ideal podcasts to listen to for commentary from directly impacted, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, discovering the fundamental issue of the length and stigma hooked up to people who have been incarcerated in radically distinctive ways.

When “Earhustle” brings together brief, diverse views on thematic problems, “Decarcerated” takes a daily life background and advocacy solution.

CaughtA new 1 that is also truly worth mentioning is “Caught: The Life of Juvenile Justice.”

This new podcast from WNYC Studios showcasing younger people presently navigating the juvenile justice process, will increase its possess take on these thoughts.

As far more people who are directly impacted develop podcasts, we will see if they fulfill creators’ plans to propel listeners into motion.

“The podcasting market is growing at a time that coincides with great social activism,” wrote Susan Simpson, the host and producer of accurate criminal offense podcast “Undisclosed,” in Quartz magazine.

“Our listeners want to hear these storiesand then they want to take it a action further more and act for justice.”

elly kalfus

elly kalfus

Editors’ Observe: Know of other intriguing podcasts connected to the justice process? Make sure you let us know, and we’ll share with TCR readers!

elly kalfus is presently a Masters pupil in Columbia University’s Oral Record method, in which she is discovering the use of oral background to develop collaborative storytelling projects with people impacted by the carceral state. She co-founded Ballots In excess of Bars, a marketing campaign for prisoners’ suffrage in Massachusetts and abroad, and is impressed by the danger-getting, creativity and brilliance of incarcerated and marginalized people across the earth. She welcomes readers’ reviews.

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