ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
And just a quick warning before we get started - there is some swearing in this episode.
There’s a classic crime and redemption narrative that goes like this. A person starts out life on the wrong path, a path of crime and violence. There’s a turning point, where the person learns the error of their ways. And then a long time spent cast out from society, where the person reflects on what they’ve done. And then, if they’re lucky, redemption comes, in some form or another. As a pardon, as a new relationship, as a new chance at a new life.
That’s the classic narrative. Real life doesn’t usually follow that template too closely.
Today’s guest, though, his story comes close. In many ways, his is the classic redemption story. But with a surprising and un-classic twist. We’ll get to that twist later in the episode. First, let’s meet my guest, a man named Earlonne Woods. A name that might be familiar to some of you listening to this podcast. And provide a clue to what that twist will be.
Earlonne grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, when there was a lot of violence in the neighborhood. Earlonne's older brother got into the drug trade. Earlonne followed him. When he was 13 or 14, Earlonne started selling joints on the street for a dollar apiece. Which escalated to selling crack, getting involved with gangs, and eventually robbing other drug dealers. In 1988, he got arrested for one of those robberies, was tried as an adult, and sent to prison.
Which meant leaving behind his mom, who Earlonne says was his rock growing up - the one who worked long hours to make ends meet, and still made time to go to his football games.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What was your mom saying about all this at the time?
EARLONNE WOODS: Uh, which part? Me going to jail?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Yeah.
EARLONNE WOODS: Hmm. I would say that I'm fairly certain that, you know, my activities along with my brother's activities, my mother lost a lot of sleep dealing with us, you know? And then I can also say my mother probably, even though she didn't wish jail on any of us, she kinda sorta knew that we were safe. Not that she didn't know the dangerousness of prisons, but she kind of felt that we were pretty safe, you know? We weren't running in the streets, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: That's a…
EARLONNE WOODS: So yeah, it's -- I mean, and it's true too, it's true.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That's a heavy choice, man. It's ...
EARLONNE WOODS: It's -- it's a very heavy choice, but the reality of it is, she could've been right, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: People died more outside of prison than inside.
EARLONNE WOODS: Correct. When you living, like, the street life, you know, some people say every day could be your last, and that's true because you involved in a total different lifestyle. You involved in the lifestyle you always see on the news.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: And for me, you know, I was involved in gangs, so I just went to prison and continued the gang banging, you know, trade in prison, you know? Uh, being involved in assaults on fellow prisoners or assaults on correctional officers. But I found myself in just -- I'm talking about, like, just getting into all kinds of stuff, you know? And I went to the security housing unit, which is pretty much solitary confinement a couple of times based on my activities in prison and I didn't pick up on it then, but my mother said the most deepest shit to me in a letter. She said, "Baby, how you go to jail in jail?" And that was like, "Damn, damn just break me down. Break me down. All right, it's me," you know? And it was like a -- it was like basically letting me know, like, you on the wrong path. You went to jail in jail, you know? Like, that's not been -- that's not good.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right...
EARLONNE WOODS: But, you know, um... when I got out of prison at, after six years, three months, hadn’t learned nothing in prison. Didn't get my GED, didn't complete a trade, didn't do none of that. Just went in jail and got out, and when it -- when it boils down to it, you basically limit yourself to a skill set that you feel you know more about. And in my situation it was dealing with, you know, selling drugs or robbing drug dealers. So it was easy to get back into it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And Earlonne did get back into it. And continued on that path for years. Until one day, he says, something happened that brought him face to face with how dangerous and destructive a path it was. It was two days after Christmas, in 1997. Earlonne and some friends had gotten themselves involved in a complicated scheme to con a drug wholesaler of out some money. A scheme that required Earlonne and his crew to steal a car. They’d driven up on a guy who’d just parked his car and was getting out, but when Earlonne pulled his gun, and knocked the guy down, the guy’s wife started screaming. So Earlonne and his friends decided to get out of there. They drove off. Shortly after that, they came to what seemed like a routine traffic checkpoint. But instead of just waving them through, the officers asked them to pull over:
EARLONNE WOODS: They was like, "Throw the keys out the window," and we was like, "Ah, this ain't a regular traffic stop."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: So the decision came to, "Hey man, let's get up out of here." You know what I'm saying? So the guy that was driving, which was one of my co-defendants, he take off.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you were running from the police now at this point? So they're -- they're saying, "Come out, throw your keys on the ground. Come out." And in that -- in that moment you're like, "We're ...
EARLONNE WOODS: Oh, this ain't gonna look good. Let's, uh... -- let's -- let's get rid of this gun. So that was the -- that was the mentality at the moment. And we took off, and in the process of taking off, we was doing maybe 80, 90 miles. And the car crashed on the corner. We jumped out and ran. And upon us jumping out, running, the Manhattan Beach Police Department shot at us 41 times. And I got shot, um, and I was caught maybe about a block away, hiding under a truck. A police dog is what found me. And being that I was shot, the paramedics came to the scene, and as they were working on me, the paramedic said, "It don't look good for one of your friends." And I was like -- I didn't know who he was talking about, but when I got to the hospital, I was talking to the doctor and the officers came and they brought me a picture of my friend Furman, he got shot 5 times in the back and he was -- he was deceased at this time. And when I seen the picture and just seeing him, I was, it -- it just -- it was hurtful. It was -- yeah... My dude, Furman Little, that was like one of my best friends. You know, we grew up together. He had a one-year-old son, and his wife was pregnant with his daughter, and he -- and he also had another little son. And um, it was hard.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What'd you -- what'd you do?
EARLONNE WOODS: I just was sitting there thinking like, "How am I going to relay this information to his wife," you know? And, um, and I seen they had a phone on the wall. And I was like, "Man, I gotta call her." So I picked it up and called collect. And I got Furman's wife on the phone. And as I was basically telling her that her husband was killed, um, I literally heard the phone hit the wall and break, you know? And -- and I think -- you know, with me thinking about his sons, he had two sons and his daughter that hadn't been born yet, it was like, “this guy done lost his life over some bullshit. Why have an individual been on this path? Like, what was all this shit for?" And that's -- that was the beginning of my mind change, you know? In that moment, you know? That was the turning point right there.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Earlonne was convicted of second degree attempted robbery. It was his third felony charge. And so, under California’s three-strikes law, Earlonne was sentenced to 31-years-to-life.
After losing his friend Furman, and now facing what could be a lifetime in prison, Earlonne took a hard look at the way he’d been living. He was determined to make this prison term very different from the first one. He stayed out of trouble, he got his GED, spent a lot of time in the law library, looking for ways to appeal his conviction. He even started reading up on government codes to figure out how to reform California’s three-strikes law. Just in general, Earlonne says, he was always on the lookout for productive ways to serve his time.
And one day, a program came on TV that caught his eye. It was called “San Quentin Film School” — a documentary on the Discovery Channel about a filmmaking program at San Quentin penitentiary, a prison with a long and notorious history but that was becoming known for its progressive programming for inmates.
Earlonne was captivated, and set his sights on getting to San Quentin. He requested a transfer, and after several years, it finally came through.
EARLONNE WOODS: When I got to San Quentin, I'm like, cool. So I seen the same dude that I had seen on TV named Troy. I seen him, I'm like, "What's up, man?" He was like, "What's up, man?" I was like, "Man, you know, what's up with the -- with the film school and all that?" And he was like, "Ah, they don't do that no more here. That's over. You know what I'm saying?" I'm like, "Yeah?" He was like, "Yeah." He say, "But, part of the deal was they left all the equipment. So we can continue to try to learn this stuff." And I was like, "That's what's up." And he invited me down to the -- to the media center and I was like, "Cool." And that's where, um -- it was a totally different environment, you know? Like, you had computers with editing software, and I was able to, like, just jump right in and just learn stuff. Learned, first, iMovies, then Final Cut Pro. So that's what -- that's what we were doing in the media center.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so Earlonne started spending as much time as he could in the San Quentin media center. Whenever he wasn’t confined to his cell or in some other mandatory prison activity, he was there. And at this point, Earlonne’s actual real-life narrative is mapping pretty accurately on top of that classic one. He’s undergone his transformative experience, losing his friend Furman, and he’s spent a decade-plus in prison, reflecting on what he’s done. But here is where the redemption story takes a surprising turn, when he gets introduced to a prison volunteer named Nigel Poor.
EARLONNE WOODS: She was a professor of this college program called PUP, which stands for prison university project. Nigel was a professor of photography there. And Nigel came over to the media center where, you know, she came over and, you know, they start talking about the projects that they, you know, wanted to do. And they started working on audio programs. Nigel created like this little show called Windows and Mirrors where, you know, she would interview dudes in there just about, like, school, running track, food, type of foods you make, you know? Which, it was just small. But then the local Bay Area news station KALW heard about it, and they started coming in to actually just teach individuals how to do radio stories. So I used to sit in for those teachings, and I knew the software and so I used to help people.
ALEX BLUMBERG: With, like -- what was the software you used?
EARLONNE WOODS: The software in the beginning was Garageband. It was, you know, very ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: The sound editing software that comes with the Apple computers.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yes. So that was first. And then what happened was, we started doing stories in Pro Tools. So I have my baby sister order me a Pro Tools book, so I can be one step up.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So like Command-E. Slip, shuffle. All this is making -- you -- you know all these terms.
EARLONNE WOODS: I figured it out. I definitely figured it out.You know and then I'm -- I'm reading it up on -- on -- on the side, reading about everything, trying to figure this stuff out. So me, I was more of the go to when they having a problem.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But then, Earlonne did a short story of his own for KALW - he filed a report on a breast cancer fundraiser walk at San Quentin. Nigel Poor, the professor who was volunteering her time at San Quentin, started to notice how observant Earlonne was, and how he connected with the other inmates. And she had an idea.
EARLONNE WOODS: So, Nigel kept, you know, talking about like, "Hey man, I want to do something a little different. Let's try to do a podcast." And of course, what is a podcast? You know, like what is that?
ALEX BLUMBERG: And you remember this conversation? Tell me about that conversation.
EARLONNE WOODS: Definitely! So uh, we was like, "Well, okay. Well, what is a podcast? We don't hear podcasts, you know?" And she started basically telling us about it. And it was more about, like, we should tell longer-form storytelling, and our audience was actually the prison, you know. So the mission was to put it on the closed circuit TV channel in the prison where everyone get to tune in and listen, because it's a certain channel. Like, I think it was, like, channel three or something where we used to put up content for the videos on those channels. And so we would definitely put up the audio for those channels as well. And we was like, "Okay." And I was sitting there just listening to her like, "Mmm, sounds interesting." So what -- what she did was got in contact with the public information officer, Lieutenant Robinson, and asked him if she could bring in a few podcasts. And she gave them to him and he -- he listened to him, whatever, and gave them to us. And so it was a Snap Judgment.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right, yes. Snap Judgment, the the the podcast hosted by Glynn Washington...
EARLONNE WOODS: Right. And so I'm listening to Snap Judgment. I'm like, "Okay." And Glynn like, just made it just, like, seem like it was just easy. The stories was easy. I was like, "We can do this. This ain't hard." [laughter] Well, that's what I thought, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up - Earlonne learns what so many others have learned before him. How hard it is to actually make a podcast. That’s after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with podcast host Earlonne Woods.
Earlonne and a prison volunteer named Nigel Poor, together with another inmate they recruited, Antwan Williams, began developing the idea for their new show. They decided to call it Ear Hustle - prison slang for eavesdropping.
And around this time, Nigel heard about this competition called Podquest that was being run by the podcasting network Radiotopia. The contest was an open call for podcast ideas, and the winning show would join Radiotopia’s podcast network, with funding and editorial support from Radiotopia’s editors and producers.
EARLONNE WOODS: While we were producing our first little podcast in San Quentin, Nigel just so happened to come in with a Radiotopia Podquest competition.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
EARLONNE WOODS: And she was like, "Yeah, if we can do this, we can -- we can probably -- if we, you know, get our podcast together, we can probably enter this contest. What y'all think?" And, you know, we like, "All right. Cool."
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Did you have any idea -- did you know what Radiotopia was? Did you ...
EARLONNE WOODS: No, I didn't know none of that. Nothing. Because you're -- you're deprived of a lot. If you can't get it on your little radio, then you're not going to hear it. And you -- you pretty much gotta be on the yard, in the middle of the yard to get, you know, a radio station.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
EARLONNE WOODS: Especially like a talk radio station or, you know, something like that. So it was like, okay, cool, cool, cool. So, you know, she asked Lieutenant Robinson and he was like, "Okay. All right, cool. Y'all can do your thing," you know? And so we start putting together our little promo. It was like a minute and 56 seconds, our promo. And it sounded so good. You know, the little promo was cool.
EAR HUSTLE PROMO: You are now tuned in, to San Quentin’s Ear Hustle….
EARLONNE WOODS: I said something like, "When you think about San Quentin, …
EAR HUSTLE PROMO: ...what comes to mind? Maximum security? Death row? Scary guys all tatted up? Johnny Cash?
EARLONNE WOODS: ...Johnny Cash." This, that and the other. And it was dealing with, you know, y'all probably, you know, hear about all the mass media bullshit that go on and this, that and the other. And that's what we was talking. Each one of us identified ourselves. And then we told, like, what type of stories we would do if you want -- you know, you want to hear from it. So we submitted it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
EARLONNE WOODS: And out of 1,537 other teams in 53 different countries, we were in the top 10. And I’m like okay cool. And we had to go through these -- through these, you know, rigorous interviews with Julie Shapiro and, you know, a lot of the people on their team that was making these decisions. And after this intense interview of how would y'all actually do a podcast in prison, we were selected for the top four.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.
EARLONNE WOODS: So now when we were selected for the top four, it was like, okay, you got to produce three stories. So oh damn, how do we do a podcast that, you know, is gonna be, you know, heard in front of these people and what are they about? And now we're trying to figure it out real quick. Um. That was like pretty hard to take, like, six hours of taping and -- and distill it to 20 minutes. It's like, oh, this is the hard part. This is why this shit sounds so easy. This is hard.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Take -- take six hours of raw audio and turn it into 20 minutes of something that feels really compelling, right? Yeah.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah that feels like, you know, people want to hear and, you know -- so we ended up doing that. We did three stories. And uh, I wanted to, you know, focus on stories that could affect people. Like, our second story was a story that I heard -- I heard about growing up and it was called Misguided Loyalties. And it was dealing with a gang member who basically executed another gang member just based on the gang. And people came -- the other gang came back and retaliated on his whole family...
MISGUIDED LOYALTY CLIP: I was in my homeboy’s house when the phone rings. And it was somebody I knew who was telling me, that my mother and brother had just been murdered. What?! Hell nah! I knew right away that it was retaliation for me killing Stanford Bursey. [phone ringing] I attempted to call my home. No one answered. "Damn." [phone ringing] I just started crying. It was unbelievable. I kept thinking in my mind, "I hope it's not true. I hope it's not true. Please, don't let it be true. Please, don't let it be true." [phone ringing] But, in my heart, I knew that it was true. It was the most devastating moment in my life.
EARLONNE WOODS: I wanted people to hear stories like that and then decide like, "Damn, is this what I want to do?" So it affected the way that I started looking at the storytelling aspect and how powerful storytelling is, and, you know what it can be used for, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: When Earlonne, Nigel, and Antwan finished their three pilots, they submitted them to Radiotopia - and waited.
EARLONNE WOODS: And we found out November 1st that we actually won the Podquest. And then it was like, "Uh-oh! We gotta figure out really how to make podcasts." Like … [laughter]
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you think you guys were gonna win? Or was this all just sort of like ...
EARLONNE WOODS: So it was -- I would say this. So when we made it to the top 10, we felt good. We was like, okay, we got a chance, you know? So when we were having all the interviews, we were just like, man, this is looking good, you know? And I remember when we won, Lieutenant Robinson told Nigel, he say, "You know what? I really only let y'all enter because I knew y'all wasn't gonna win. Y'all had never done a podcast. So I was like, yeah, they ain't gonna win."
ALEX BLUMBERG: And now he's like, now I gotta make this -- now I gotta figure out how to have this podcast happen.
EARLONNE WOODS: Don't -- now, yeah. Now we gotta figure out how do you do a podcast from a prison and, you know, how do we do all this? So...
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you started putting that podcast together and -- but you had still at this point while you're -- while you're -- you've won the contest and now you're starting to put together the podcast ...
EARLONNE WOODS: Right.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You have still at this point -- is it still the only podcast you've actually listened to were the couple of Snap Judgments?
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah, it was -- it was -- it was a few that was approved to come in, and it was mainly Snap Judgment, um, I think -- I think one of -- I think it could've been This American Life and Reply -- Reply All. It was some -- it was like a few of them.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh! Reply All's one of ours. That's exciting.
EARLONNE WOODS: Okay. Yeah. You were able to hear, you know, different points of views in different -- and how individuals sculpted these stories together, and -- and how did they lead into this and come into that? So that was, like, really like -- like -- like, just basically giving us the game on what we were about to embark on. And -- uh, which was very helpful,
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: I must say.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you're starting to put together this -- this podcast. When did you launch the first episode live into the world?
EARLONNE WOODS: Okay. So, June 14th, 2017, is when we first launched. And then right before we launched, so we -- we -- we -- we had -- we had a meeting with Julie Shapiro, Curtis Fox, ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Your editor.
EARLONNE WOODS: … Carrie Hoffman. Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And these were all people from Radiotopia, and your editor Curtis...
EARLONNE WOODS: Radiotopia. PRX. They whole crew. And, you know, we were sitting there and we was talking and, you know, we was just trying to figure out like, you know, what is the, you know, what is successful, you know, downloads. And I think they was like, "Well, you know, if you get like 50,000 for the season, that should be good." And -- and, I was like, we going to hit a million, right?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, that's what you thought.
EARLONNE WOODS: That's what I thought. Because in my thinking it was like, man, there's 2.2 million people in prison. Somebody gonna, you know, really get this, you know? Somebody's gonna really, you know, get attached. So I was thinking like that. Like yeah, we gonna hit a million, you know? And they was like, "Well you know, that's kind of -- you know, that's like -- you know, that's like top one percent or --" I mean, you know, they was -- they was just basically giving this new dude some game on, you know, the numbers and what that mean. And so I'm like, "You know, okay. All right, cool." And so we launch. We launch our first episode, which is Cellies.
EAR HUSTLE CLIP
Earlonne: Ear hustling is prison slang for eavesdropping, listening in to something that may not be your business. And today, we’re going to hear about cellies.
Nigel: It’s a big deal in prison who your cellmate is, isn’t it?
Earlonne: Huge. Ask anyone around here and they’ll have a lot to say about their cellies…
VOX: We always wash our hands like…[laughs]
In that first episode, Earlonne and Nigel interview a bunch of different inmates around the prison yard about their experiences with cell mates. One of the stories is about these two cellmates who are brothers — one who was a smoker, and the other one, who can’t stand the smoke...
EAR HUSTLE CLIP
Eddie: And I was like trying to hold it in, trying to hold it in, and it was just eating at me, and then we just clashed in the cell.
Emile: And he was like, "Man, you're trying to kill me! You're killing me with this. You're going to kill me with cancer!" And I would just kind of, I was very dismissive, like, "Man, shut the fuck up with that shit, man. God, man, we are in prison for life, like you know, I have 67 years to life. You have 27 years to life. Man, I am smoking this cigarette."
EARLONNE WOODS: And so we -- we -- we put it out in the world and, And again in prison, you don't know -- we don't see how it's being played in the world, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
EARLONNE WOODS: So, you know ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: You don't have social media.
EARLONNE WOODS: No social media, no internet ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: ...Twitter, Facebook. Nobody's liking your episode or anything. You're not seeing anything.
EARLONNE WOODS: We're not -- we don't see nothing, no internet access. So all we have is Nigel coming in and updating on -- us on what's happening, you know? Nigel would come in like, "Yes, it's -- you know, people were really, you know, liking it. They're commenting and they're doing this, they're doing that." And she was basically giving us, so we were like, "Okay, cool, cool." You know, we still at work doing other stuff. And that first month, the podcast had been downloaded over 1.5 million times. And I think Julie and them was like, "Man, you're clairvoyant, you know? Like -- like ..."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, I remember I heard the first episode. I heard Cellies when it came out, and I was just listening. And I remember thinking like, "Man, this thing is good." And -- and by that point, it had, like, shot to the top of the charts and it was, like, getting all this, like, attention and acclaim and everybody was talking about it. And I'd started this podcasting company. And we were -- and we were having -- we were pretty successful, and we had, like, some pretty, you know, pretty big shows. But we had -- like, you got a bonafide hit. And I was like, man, these guys in prison are kicking our butts.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah, that was -- that was -- that was -- that was interesting.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But it was, like, pretty amazing to see. Like, what did it feel -- like, I know how -- I know what it feels like to have, like, a hit podcast on the -- on the outside. What did it feel like inside?
EARLONNE WOODS: Um, inside we was -- we was oblivious to all that, you know? So the only way we knew what was going on was when, when I started getting letters from colleges, classrooms in high school, like, letters from all the students talking about this podcast and discussing certain things in it. And it was like, “This is really, you know, taking -- taking its own course. It's, like, going places I never even thought about, you know?"
ALEX BLUMBERG: How much mail before -- before Ear -- Ear Hustle, like, how much mail would you get per week?
EARLONNE WOODS: [laughs] So prior to Ear Hustle, you know, I got the average mail from family members every now and again, you know, people -- you know, you write people, people write you, you know, you can call. So I used to get pictures from family members and friends, you know, maybe -- maybe two letters a week or something like that, you know? And it went from, like, two letters a week to maybe 14 a week, to 20 a week, to I can't keep up, you know? To, like, you know, when you in prison you want problems. Like, you want to be able to, you know, have stuff to do.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Have too much mail to read.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah. You -- you -- you want to have stuff to do. You -- you dream of, you know, getting a bag of letters and, you know -- and -- and you even hear like of -- you can hear about the one guy that's -- you know, a few guys on death row, Scott Peterson was one of them. It was like, yeah, he get a bag of letters. Like, damn, he get a bag of letters? You know, you wasn't really tripping, but then when you start getting all these letters, it's like, uh-oh. Oh man. You want to respond to everybody, but it just becomes like, oh man, it's just coming in and coming in and coming in. And I was trying to respond to everybody too, and it was getting hard. But the main people I was more likely to respond to was the high school classrooms that used to write, the college classrooms that used to write, the students used to write. And then they were doing papers, and then they were talking about stuff that was so over my head, you know? They then broke down these episodes and I'm like, wow. I'm -- I'm -- I'm -- this is becoming a learning session for me, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. So that -- that's happening. Does your profile change in -- in -- inside the prison as a result of this?
EARLONNE WOODS: To the -- to the prisoners? No.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It's not like you're out in the yard and everybody's all of a sudden whispering like, "Oh, there goes ..."
EARLONNE WOODS: Nah, nah, nah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: "There goes Earlonne. He has a hit podcast."
EARLONNE WOODS: You probably have to do a lot more than a podcast to get some major accolades from your peers. [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up, Earlonne’s podcast may not have bought him a lot of cred on the prison yard, but it did do one pretty special thing for him. That’s after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Earlonne Woods.
When Ear Hustle launched, it was a hit. So much so that Ear Hustle and Earlonne started making headlines:
ANCHOR: The audio series Ear Hustle, the first podcast to be produced entirely inside a prison, has steadily grown in popularity.
ANCHOR: Within a few months, it was at the top of the iTunes podcast charts. And to date, episodes have been downloaded more than 6 million times.
ANCHOR: Their voices now stretching far beyond this prison’s barbed-wire-covered walls...
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so a friend of Earlonne’s, a volunteer at the prison, had an idea: with this spotlight on his work, and having served now two decades of his 31-to-life sentence, Earlonne should put in for a commutation -- make an official appeal to the governor, to set him free.
EARLONNE WOODS: She's like, "Put in a commutation, you know? Because you're doing all the good work. You know, you're -- you're -- you're doing rehabilitative work and, you know, you also, you know, basically teaching the world with a podcast, you know -- and you know, giving individuals insightful information." And so, you know, you think of, you know, only people get commuted is people on death row. You're not even really tripping like that. So I filled out -- I got the paperwork, I went through it, filled it out to the best of my ability, and I actually got an interview, uh, with the -- I think it was like a parole agent three. They interviewed me, and for my process to start going...
ALEX BLUMBERG: To be eligible for commutation? To have your sentence commuted and to be released from prison?
EARLONNE WOODS: Exactly. So my process took long because -- it took about a year because I had to go through the California Supreme Court, and they'd have to agree with it. So I went through this whole process, and a year ago on the day before Thanksgiving, I got the call from Governor Brown's office
ALEX BLUMBERG: Describe that phone call. What would -- what would -- do you remember where you were?
EARLONNE WOODS: Mm-hmm. So nobody really -- it's this place in prison called the Captain's Porch. This is where all the administration people be. So you don't go to this place, you don't go in there, not unless you a prisoner worker and you -- you work in there. So when they called me to the Captain's Porch ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: And how do they do that? A guard comes or what?
EARLONNE WOODS: No. So -- so -- so -- so what happened was, you know, in the media center, there's a phone in the media center, and somebody was like, "Hey man, they got a phone call for you. And I got there and they was like, "The governor's office is on the phone." And the ladies in the governor's office, they broke the news down to me. Saying that the governor is commuting your sentence to be released immediately on parole. And I was listening to it smiling, and I say, "Do immediate mean like right now? Like, I can go?" And they was like, "No, no, no. We gotta -- we gotta process the paperwork. But within the next five business days you're gone." And I was like, "Okay." And this was the day before Thanksgiving, meaning the next four days is not business days.
EARLONNE WOODS: And I'm like, -- I'm like, "Ah!"
ALEX BLUMBERG: It's very appropriate timing in one way. Because like, boy, you a lot to be thankful for, right? But on the other hand ...
EARLONNE WOODS: On the other hand, you just gotta hold this information for, like, nine days. [laughs] But it was the most beautiful feeling, because I was able to call my moms and, you know, she was very elated that like, "Ah, I'm gonna have a man home." You know, me and my brother, we've -- we've -- we've pretty much been incarcerated, you know, a lot in our lives, or long periods of time. So it was a good thing, you know? And, it was -- it was like -- it was almost like the whole prison system up until that point was, like, on my back, like just weighing me down. Like, just -- with a life sentence, you -- you don't know, you just stuck, you just incapacitated, basically. And when they said that, it just, like, just lifted up off me, you know? And it was like you started to -- to float. It wasn't even like walking no more. It was like just -- just -- it was -- it was unreal. It was -- man, the governor actually commuted my sentence out of I don't know how many people in this prison system. And, and, and -- and I really -- I don't take it for granted at all, because I have -- it was another guy in that car with us that's still in prison to 2028.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: You know? That -- that was one of my co-defendants. So I look at him like, I know -- and, you know, that could be me. I could still be in there, you know? So, yeah.
On November 30, 2018, Earlonne Woods was released from prison on parole.
There was an official letter from California’s then-governor, Jerry Brown, announcing his commutation. Governor Brown writes, “Mr Woods has clearly shown that he is no longer the man he was when he committed this crime.” And as evidence of that, the governor goes on to say, quote: “He has set a positive example for his peers and, through his podcast, has shared meaningful stories from those inside prison. For all of these reasons, I believe that Mr. Woods is ready to be released on parole.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: When you look back on your whole experience, like, how do you -- what story do you tell yourself about that?
EARLONNE WOODS: Of course, I have to -- you know, looking back, I have to blame myself for getting out there, you know, getting into the criminal activities. But I think it was just me doing what was being done in my neighborhood, and not having the discipline to not go into that -- into that trade or not go that route. But it was -- it was -- it was heavily accessible. I mean, everything from drugs, weapons, everything was accessible in the neighborhood. You know, a lot of my friends I ran into in prison, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EARLONNE WOODS: It was like, it wasn't a bad thing growing up. Like, it was more like, that's what's up, man. You know, the homie's got heart, you know? Straight up heart, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: It's -- it's almost -- it's like a badge of -- it sounds like it's almost like a sign of success...
EARLONNE WOODS: It is. Badge of honor, badge of success. But just to even think like that, you know what I'm saying? You know, a lot of us got our first felonies when we were like 14 years old, you know? And that pretty much takes you out the whole system. Like, you know, when you have a felony, this -- it limits you in the future. Like, it limits your jobs. It limits everything. So we need to come up with -- you know, how do we stop this cycle? You went from an era where it was tough on crime, super predators and this, that and the other. And now it's like, hold up, hold up, hold up. There's a story behind all this. Let’s see how we can change it, change this story. And hopefully, you know, through what we do, we are able to open people's minds up to something beyond a headline or something beyond that to where, you know, it's a -- it's a -- it's a story of how people got here, good or bad. It's a story.
ALEX BLUMBERG: When Earlonne got out of prison, he had a job waiting for him on the outside - as a full-time producer, working on Ear Hustle. The fourth season of Ear Hustle is out now. In it, Earlonne tells stories of re-entry from the outside, and Nigel Poor is joined by a new co-host to tell stories from inside San Quentin. Ear Hustle is part of the Radiotopia podcast network from PRX. It’s available wherever you listen to podcasts.
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Mixing by Kegan Zema. Music by Bobby Lord.
If you like Without Fail, follow the show. You can get every episode for free through Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.