A Prison Lifer Comes Home
The Atlantic by Maura Ewing and Samantha Melamed
Haywood “Red Dog” Fennell was finishing up work for the day, headed back to his cell at Pennsylvania’s largest-capacity prison, when a friend called him over, eager to share the news that had lit up the men’s tiny TV screens and sent shouts and whistles echoing down the long, cavernous cell block. It was June 25, 2012, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. Pennsylvania had imposed that sentence on more kids than any other state—some 500 of them, many now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Men who still had their mothers called home to share the news. The jailhouse lawyers got creative with petitions to speed their release. The religious men said prayers. Fennell didn’t see much cause to celebrate. Forty-eight years of incarceration for a role in a fatal mugging when he was 17, and 11 denied commutation applications, had hardened him against fantasies of freedom. Besides, Fennell was 20 years old by the time he was convicted and sentenced. He figured the Supreme Court decision didn’t even apply to him.
Commentary: From jail to an apartment — not the streets. Secure housing is key for those pulling their lives back together.
Commentary: From jail to an apartment — not the streets. Secure housing is key for those pulling their lives back together.
Chicago Tribune by Richard J. Monocchio and Charles P. Burns
September 30, 2019
Johnny Washington walked out of his program graduation, certificate in hand, saying he felt relieved and proud. After more than 20 years of heroin abuse and numerous stints in Cook County Jail, he was now regularly engaged in therapy, finally clean and sober, had secured a part-time job and was on the cusp of having his most recent charges dismissed.
He had done everything right, and he was hopeful for the future, but one thing was weighing on his mind. While he had secured a spot at a transitional living facility for the time being, his time there was soon coming to an end. He worried about where he would land after leaving — and whether he would be able to afford it.
Life Inside: I Host a Popular Podcast. I'm Also in Prison
The Marshall Project by Rahsaan Thomas
The sun shines brightly through the gated windows so I grab a pair of Sony headphones and the Tascam (a portable audio recorder) and leave the office with my co-worker, John “Yahya” Johnson, an intellectual Muslim brother out of Oakland. Curious as to how many people behind bars have seen the romance movie “The Notebook,” we venture outside to the yard to find out. I walk up to the first guy I see, someone waiting on the sidelines to play basketball.
“Hey man, can I interview you about the classic romance movie called 'The Notebook?'”
“I've never seen 'The Notebook.'”
“So what’s the best romance movie you have seen?”
I laugh because Baby Boy, an urban tale about a childish young man who needs to grow up in order to raise his son alongside the mother, is not what I would consider a classic romance movie.
Then I remove a release form (to have the man I’d just interviewed sign) from a green binder with an Ear Hustle logo stuck on the cover.
Ear Hustle is the award-winning podcast about life inside prison—specifically my prison, San Quentin—that has around 30 million downloads in total. It's the brainchild of Nigel Poor, a professor who taught for years at San Quentin, Earlonne Woods, a man who was serving a life sentence for attempted robbery under California’s three-strikes law, and Antwan “Banks” Williams. The original plan was to circulate the show only inside the prison, but then they got permission to enter a Radiotopia “Podquest” contest.
No one at San Quentin knew how to do a podcast, but they entered anyway—and won. In 2017, Ear Hustle launched to critical acclaim with “Cellies,” featured on the Today Show, tallying nearly 2 million downloads.
As a reporter for the San Quentin News, I covered the rapid rise of the podcast as it defied the gravity of being produced inside a prison. From right next door, I cheered at the accomplishment of something that no incarcerated people had ever been able to do so effectively: reach millions of people.
But in 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Earlonne’s sentence, and he became a free man; his job as co-producer and co-host was suddenly available. Eager to learn how to tell more effective stories, I jumped at the chance to apply. That meant getting grilled by Nigel, while Earlonne warned me that I probably should just settle for being a producer. It would be hard to follow a guy with a perfect radio voice, I knew.
But Earlonne surprised me a few weeks later, saying, “It’s you, dog. You gonna be the new co-host.”
I felt proud to be chosen, of course, but even more scared about following his act. Earlonne’s charisma and rapport with Nigel are a huge part of the podcast’s success. Plus he’s a three-striker, which gets him a measure of sympathy, whereas I’m convicted of murder. Would the world accept me becoming the voice of Ear Hustle?
A few nervous month later, it was decided that Earlonne would actually continue with the show by producing and co-hosting certain stories that covered the other side of incarceration: what it’s like to be on parole. I felt relieved from the pressure to single-handedly maintain the show’s success.
On the yard, Yahya and I continued to ask people about "The Notebook" for an episode about “dating while on parole” called, “I Want the Fairy Tale.” We interviewed about eight more guys at random. A few declined to speak on the record, but most hold Ear Hustle in high regard and were eager for a chance to shine. After finding out that the majority of men at San Quentin won’t admit to being chick-flick fans, we headed back to the media center.
There, Nigel sat at an iMac computer editing audio using ProTools software. Across the small space, Antwan worked with Pat Mesiti-Miller, an audio engineer, on sound-designing.
Nigel and Pat are our supervisors, but it feels like the only difference between us is that they get to leave the prison and go home at the end of the workday. Otherwise we are colleagues. I weigh in on stories and how far we can go without losing the respect of the incarcerated people who trust us. (We often have to advise the men not to give us too much information about themselves, for their own privacy and security in here, no matter how many downloads they think their most dramatic story will get.)
I’ve heard it said that there can be no communication until we sit together as equals. Working for Ear Hustle feels like that. In most prisons I’ve been to, it didn’t feel like I could work with society to accomplish anything. Like so many in lockup, I felt alienated from you. But now I feel like a productive member of both the inside and outside community.
Besides working with my colleagues, I also interact with Lieutenant Robinson, the public information officer here. He’s the type of prison official who supports positive endeavors and empowers us to carry them out. It’s his signature on a memo of permission that allows me to walk the yard conducting interviews. For the first time in my life, I enjoy talking with a correctional officer—it’s actually fun to hear him clown around when he records the approvals that we play during each episode.
Today the Lt. came to weigh in on our “Inside Music” episode. A microphone attached to what looks like a robotic arm extends to each side of a small table. ProTools is set to record.
“I went back and forth” on approving this one, the Lt. said into the mic, “because I know there’s a genre you guys missed. There is no country music in this episode. [But], begrudgingly, I am Lt. Sam Robinson at San Quentin State Prison, the public information officer who approves this episode.”
Producing a podcast from prison isn’t all green lights, though. The “Inside Music” episode went up behind schedule because it had to be further cleared by the administration before it could be released, and that happened a day late. They check for “security and safety” concerns.
It can be frustrating, but then I remember: There’s probably no other prison in the world where a man convicted of murder would be allowed to use his time so productively doing something he loves—bringing joy, understanding, and entertainment to the public about the human nature of people behind bars. Because of how much harm I caused many families, it doesn’t feel like I deserve to be co-host of anything. At the same time, I’m hungry to make meaning out of destruction.
With each episode, I wonder if some listener will object to me co-hosting.
At the end of the day, I return to a cell that I share with another incarcerated person. I grab my shower stuff and troop back down five flights of stairs to the shower that’s down there. It’s full. A line of 12 men stand under a small pipe with nozzles streaming water, each just two feet apart.
I wait on the side until a shower becomes available and wash myself there, in front of everyone.
About 20 minutes later, I’m back in my cell as a correctional officer locks the door for the night. I’m in prison.
But before walking away, he hesitates, shuffles through some envelopes and says, “Thomas.”
“95,” I answer, indicating the last two numbers of my prison identification number.
“You got some letters.”
He hands three through the side of the gate. I quickly scan the return addresses. One is from someone I don’t recognize.
I open it and commence reading. It starts with, “I heard you on Ear Hustle.”
Rahsaan Thomas, 49, a New York native, is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a co-producer and co-host of Ear Hustle. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he’s the chairman of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists - San Quentin Satellite Chapter and a contributing writer for the San Quentin News and Wall City magazine. He is serving a 55-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm. He shot and killed two armed men who he says were stealing property from him.
Where Art and Rural Incarceration Meet
Marshall Project by Celina Fano
In 1851, the rolling green hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were the scene of the Christiana Riot, an armed uprising against the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the capture and return of enslaved people who had escaped. The revolt took place nine miles from the site of a new art installation exploring rural incarceration—a fact that was not lost on the artist, Jesse Krimes.
“It was important for me to trace the history of slavery into Jim Crow into convict leasing, into segregation and all of those things into mass incarceration,” said Krimes, a formerly-incarcerated artist whose latest work combines a series of quilts and an interactive corn maze.
The scale of the installation, called “Voices from the Heartland: Safety, Justice, and Community in Small and Rural America,” is ambitious and its components intricately detailed. But perhaps most striking is Krimes’s use of artwork and stories from incarcerated people themselves.
After Prison, more punishment
Washington Post by Tracy Jan
Sept 3, 2019
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — He had spent 17 of his 46 years behind bars, locked in a pattern of addiction and crime that led to 16 prison terms. Now, Meko Lincoln pushed a cart of cleaning supplies at the reentry house to which he had been paroled in December, determined to provide for his grandchildren in a way he failed to do as a father. “Keep on movin’, don’t stop,” Lincoln sang, grooving to the British R&B group Soul II Soul on his headphones as he emptied trash cans and scrubbed toilets at Amos House. He passed a bulletin board plastered with hiring notices — a line cook, a warehouse worker, a landscaper — all good jobs for someone with a felony record, but not enough for him.
Lincoln, who is training to be a drug and alcohol counselor, wants those lost years to count for something more.
“I lived it,” he said. “I understand it. My past is not a liability. It’s an asset. I can help another person save their life.”
Yet because regulations in Rhode Island and most other states exclude people with criminal backgrounds from many jobs, Lincoln’s record, which includes sentences for robbery and assault, may well be held against him.
Across the country, more than 10,000 regulations restrict people with criminal records from obtaining occupational licenses, according to a database developed by the American Bar Association. The restrictions are defended as a way to protect the public. But Lincoln and others point out that the rules are often arbitrary and ambiguous.
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REPORT PRAISES HIGH SCHOOL IN JAIL BUT FAILS TO ASK WHY KIDS ARE LOCKED UP AT ALL
The Apeal by Adam H Johnson
September 13, 2019
A Pittsburgh public radio piece lacked critical reporting about the many problems with jailing children in adult facilities.
The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
Justice for All: What life is like inside a maximum security prison.
Sept 5, 2019
NBC News’ series taking an eye-opening look at the nation’s criminal justice system, Lester Holt spent two nights at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the U.S., to explore the mass incarceration crisis.
Progressive DAs are shaking up the criminal justice system. Pro-police groups aren't happy.
NBC News by Allan Smith
Aug 19, 2020
Progressive, reform-minded prosecutors have taken the reins in top local prosecutor roles across the country that have allowed them to begin to change the criminal justice system from the inside out.
These left-leaning Democratic district attorneys have sought reforms to the bail system, curbed enforcement of lower-level marijuana offenses, increased the use of diversion programs over jail time and pledged to end mass incarceration. They have also tried changing the culture in their offices, adjusting their prosecutorial priorities to upend a system they believe has contributed to the rise in prison populations.
And they've vowed to hold police accountable for alleged wrongdoing. Their platforms have been met with stiff opposition from some, particularly law enforcement organizations, advocacy groups and state and federal politicians and other prosecutors who have accused the reformers of being anti-police and who believe the changes will make citizens less safe.
Last week, Attorney General William Barr — who decades ago helped write a report arguing for more incarceration — told a Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans that "the emergence in some of our large cities of district attorneys that style themselves as 'social justice' reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the law," is "demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety."
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive