In 2011, Nigel Poor, an associate professor of photography at California State University, Sacramento, began volunteering with the Prison University Project, a program that offers accredited college classes at San Quentin State Prison. She'd leave the leafy Sac State campus and head to San Quentin, the oldest prison in California and the only correctional facility in the state with a death row for male inmates. There, she taught a class on the history of photography alongside Doug Dertinger, who's also on the faculty of Sac State's Department of Design.

Poor went on to create an audio project that led to the creation of "Ear Hustle," a podcast about life in prison that she co-produces and co-hosts with Earlonne Woods, an inmate serving 31 years to life for attempted second-degree robbery. The acclaimed podcast began its second season on March 14 and was just nominated for the prestigious Peabody Award on April 10.

Professor Poor spoke to us recently about her experiences at San Quentin; here are excerpts from that conversation.

 

Q: How surprised are you to find yourself co-hosting a podcast with an inmate from inside San Quentin?

Nigel Poor: Shocked! Until we started working on "Ear Hustle," it was never something I thought I would end up doing. I'm a photographer; my world is very visual, so to find myself doing audio work was quite a surprise to me, but a delightful surprise.

 

Q: Are you as surprised by the success of "Ear Hustle"? It was the winner — chosen from more than 1,500 submissions — of Radiotopia's Podquest contest, and it had nearly eight million downloads its first season.

Poor: Absolutely! When we went into this we thought some people would be interested, but we had no idea of the reach. I think it shows that people are hungry for a different narrative about prisons than what we have been led to believe. 

There's so much bad TV and bad Hollywood movies that portray those in prison as one-dimensional, as monsters, as uninformed or unformed individuals. It makes me happy to see that this isn't what people want. They want something much more complex and something much more nuanced, more realistic.

When Doug and I started teaching at San Quentin, I wasn't that educated about prisons myself. I went in with the same assumptions about who would be there. I had my eyes and heart really opened by meeting the guys inside. I would come to see them the same way I'd see my students at Sac State: as individuals who had things to share, who'd had experiences that were important and deserved to have a voice. 

I'd gone into San Quentin with curiosity, wanting to learn something about a very cloistered society, and that curiosity led me to change my views and it changed my life.

I'd gone into san quentin with curiosity and that curiosity led me to change my views and it changed my life." — nigel poor, professor of  photography, sacramento state


Q: How has the experience changed you?

Poor: It changed me as an artist greatly. I trained as a photographer and I teach photography, but now I find myself immersed in the world of sound and how voice and sound can tell a complicated story.

As a teacher, someone who really believes in education, I love that at this point in my life I'm learning new skills, new avenues for ideas. And that's something I hope to impart to my students — that education continues after you graduate, it should continue all your life. You are never a finished product.

I found what I want to do with the second part of my life, which is to do audio, work in prisons and work in a quiet way to try and get people to think about incarceration, about what is appropriate in crime and punishment and about their beliefs about restorative processes, and not just about punishment.

 

Q: Did the students you taught at San Quentin turn out to be different than you'd expected?

Poor: I'd never thought about the education level of people in prison. I had people in my class who had master's degrees. I had a student who had worked on his Ph.D. before he was incarcerated. I had guys who had just got their GEDs.

The other thing I didn't expect was how curious they were and how much knowledge meant to them. They always did the reading. They always came ready to discuss stuff. There was never a silence. If I asked a question, everyone wanted to jump in and be heard. That's not always the case at Sac State. In prison there wasn't the shyness about expressing ideas that you sometimes find among students on campus.

 

Q: You're on sabbatical from Sac State to devote yourself full-time to "Ear Hustle." How will your experience at San Quentin change the way you teach when you return in the fall?

Poor: I teach history classes and I teach studio classes. For both, I'd like to figure out a way to incorporate audio more, have students think outside the parameters of using the still image.

Also, because I was so excited about being in prison and teaching there, I feel I'll bring that enthusiasm back to the classroom and show students by example that engagement is really important. It's not just about finishing your education and getting a degree. It's about how you go out in the world and share your excitement with other people.

I'd like to talk to students about the importance of civic engagement and community engagement and how they can give back. They're at an important point in their life where they're the central focus, as it should be. But as they finish school and go on to graduate, I'd like them to think about how they can become part of their community.

To learn more about "Ear Hustle" and to subscribe to the podcast, go to EarHustleSQ.com. All photos courtesy of Nigel Poor