Sometimes, starting over isn’t as easy as it sounds. In this episode of Adult ISH, we’re hearing stories from people impacted by mass incarceration who speak to the process of beginning anew. First, host Nyge Turner interviews Earlonne Woods, host of the podcast “Ear Hustle.” They dissect Woods’ experience building a new life after years in San Quentin State Prison. Then, producer Dominique French talks a student from the Underground Scholars initiative at UC Berkeley, a program creating a prison-to-school pipeline.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm your host, Nygel Turner. This episode, we really wanted to focus on a topic we don't think gets talked about enough. In our society, we pick and choose who we give advice to and what people deserve opportunities and second chances. We wanted to dive into some of those taboo topics and talk about growing up and figuring out your adult ish when you have to start over. First we sat down with Earlonne Woods, the co-host of Ear Hustle, a huge award-winning podcast about the daily realities of life in prison told by those living it, and stories from the outside, post Incarceration.
Earlonne: So it's a it's a trip. I tell you this, Nyge. I tell you this. It's like, I don't care how long you've been gone. Right? It’s a feeling when you get out, you think that you're getting out to something new, something different. But being that you've had freedom before, right? When you get out, it's like, “Oh, I'm back.” You know what I'm saying? It's not like big. It's like it's not like new. But so, to answer your question, I think me, I just smooth sailed right back into everything. Because one, I didn't go back to my hometown, which is Los Angeles, you know. And that was, that was based on, you know, me just changing up. You know, I was looking at it like, “Hey, well, I have a new lease on life. After being gone for 20 something years, I just, I was just like, “You know what? I'm gonna do it all different this time.” You know? When you've been away from a location for so long, it's not really home no more. So wherever you, wherever you root yourself, that's what it is. When it comes to family, all my family is down south. You know, Los Angeles area. You know, emotionally that's been the most. It’s not really being able to just like say, for instance, hang out with family whenever I want. So to them, I probably, you know — even though I'm not — to them, I'm probably still away. You know what I'm saying? Because I'm not there daily, I'm not participating in daily activities that they do. So I think emotionally that's probably the biggest thing, not being able to just, you know, pull up on mom’s every day if I choose to, you know what I'm saying?
Nyge: Right. Is that like a piece of advice that you would that you would give to people is to, to separate yourself from the environment that you were in when you, when you originally made those decisions or — ?
Earlonne: I don't know. I think it’s to each person, each his own. To each his own, because I don't know what people were into when they were in society. So some people may can go back to their cities and it'd be okay. And I'm sure I could've went back to my city and it would have been okay. Because of where my mind is at today. But I think I just don't want no one else influencing my decisions or or, you know, controlling the outcome.
Nyge: So, can you talk a little bit about the organizations or resources that that you could highlight to assist people who've previously been incarcerated or are just looking for help?
Earlonne: It all depends on where you're at. Like if you're down South, you know, you do have organizations like ARC - Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Up here, in Northern California, I know you have organizations like BOSS and No More Tears and different organizations that’s willing to help individuals that’s getting out of prison. And let me just say, let me go back. They used to have this thing in prison called S time where, you know, you would be shortly about to get out and then they’ll start gathering this stuff for you to get out, like your I.D., your Social Security card. They don't do that no more for some reason. So that's kind of a hard thing for people getting out of prison that don't have a birth certificate. They don't have a Social Security card. And if you don't have a Social Security card, you know you can't even get in the system on — to be paid, you know what I'm saying? So a lot of that stuff should be done way before you get out of prison, because you would, you would be out here for six months trying to get that stuff, you know, and what you're going to be doing in that time? Some, sometime people backslide in those times. So I would definitely say just, you know, individuals that's on parole or probation or whatever, go to the, the place where they have to sign into, there are some resources there that can help you.
Nyge: Yeah, I remember my uncle had a pretty, like similar experience. Like after, after he got out, like he went right back into the, to the work that he was doing and it wasn't anything. Because like the — who he was working over, like just selling houses and real estate and stuff like that, it doesn't have any real roadblocks. And so he did — went right back to work, got his old house back, got his old cars back, got everything. But when me and him were talking, it was kind of more like emotionally. Emotionally, he just felt like he was kind of frozen in time for, for a period. And he just felt like he had to rebuild the relationships that he knew were like solid and different things like that.
Nyge: Can you talk about some of the rights that people lose when they are incarcerated?
Earlonne: Yeah. you lose the right to privacy. That's the biggest thing. You know, there is no, “No, you ain’t searching this!” Or, “No, you not searching my body!” You lose the right to everything because you know, when you’re in prison, you're basically state property. You know, you can't even tattoo on yourself without getting written up. You know what I'm saying? Your body is not your own, you know? And there is no such thing as privacy.
Nyge: You can't - you can't do any tattoos?
Earlonne: You can’t - nah! That's, you're destroying state property, basically. (Nyge: Oh wow.) You know what I'm saying? You become straight property. You are a number. You know what I'm saying? The Department of Corrections owns you until that time you get out, you know? So I was just talking to a lady and there's one interview that we're doing, and she was telling me, like in some prisons, in the prison she was in, you can't even touch a person or hug a person, you know what I'm saying? And a fellow prisoner, you know? Because like if someone, family member passed on, you can't even just, you know, you know, just give them a hug like, “You know, it's going to be alright.” Or whatever because, you know, they don't want touch. They don't want this, they don't want that. So you do lose a lot.
Nyge: What about after you've been, like released?
Earlonne: After you've been released, you know, the crazy part is, say, for instance, cats that's been gone for decades. You know, there is no job history. There is no credit history. There's nothing. So if I got out and I had the money. Say I was sitting here, rich and I try to go, you know, get an apartment. There's no credit history. So they — usually it won't even fly for them. You know, they won't even give me the spot because I have none of that. Because you’re getting out into a world where you have nothing. You have nothing built up, nothing established. No record of who you are financially or or job histories or even housing histories, you know. For me, it’s still hard. You know? That's the hard part. Trying to just get everything back on track.
Nyge: I know this is a really big question. And you can talk about some of the work that you've been doing too, with, with this. But, how would you like to see our country's justice system change in the next ten years?
Earlonne: I would really like to see United States Supreme Court justices having terms. Because I think you get people up there that — they sit there forever on that bench until they die, technically. And they decide how this country is ran, you know what I'm saying? And if you have individuals that are real conservative and you know that, you know, they have a conservative view. Then that’s what, you know, is going to dictate how this country is ran, because the United States Supreme Court basically decides what, what the laws mean. They can decide them how they choose to decide them. So I would say that. I would say, you know, this country needs to rid itself of the death penalty. I would say this country needs to rid itself of life without the possibility of parole. And this country needs to rid itself of mandatory minimum sentences.
Nyge: All right. You've been working on a campaign to repeal California's three-strike law. Can you talk about that work?
Earlonne: So, yeah, so the three strikes law in California says that if you have two prior convictions, your third conviction would get you 25 years to life. And the first is, is supposed to be like, “Okay, if you have one conviction, then, okay, whatever.” But if you come back — In people’s minds, if you come back to prison again with another sentence, then that sentence would be doubled up. And let's say you get out and you come back to prison again, then you can, you can do a life sentence in prison, which is supposed to be the three strikes. But the problem with it is, most people under this law and most of the people that have a life sentence never had a second chance to reform or anything like that, because I’ll use myself as an example. I went to prison in 1988 when I was 17 years old. You know what I'm saying? I was a juvenile. But my case was was decided in adult court. So I went to prison for that one case. And that one case had two felony convictions in it on the same person. It was a kidnap robbery. It was some drug shit. And when I got out six years, three months later, I was out for two years, ten months, and I was arrested again. And they told me, “Hey, you know, you facing a life sentence.” I'm like, “What you mean?” I'm like, “This is the second time I've been locked up.” They was like, “No, well, that first case had two convictions in it.” I'm like, “What? The convictions was on the same person!” They was like, “It don't matter, it’s two convictions. So this is your third conviction, this will be your third conviction and you're going to, you know, face life in prison.” You know what I’m saying? Actually, you know, had the governor not commuted my sentence in 2018, I'll still be in prison till 2028 before I go to the parole. So I served 21 years before Governor Brown commuted my sentence.
Nyge: I was wondering, what are like some misconceptions people still have about life after prison?
Earlonne: Sometime I think some people may feel that, you know, the individual is who the individual was before that person went to prison. You know, sometimes they think that after getting out, after so long, you're a monster from being in that type of environment for so long, you know, like, “How can you survive that?” You know, because the average person that's never been in prison can can't fathom doing a day in there. And, you know, some people may get out and may be the same, may be worse, but for the most part, most people that I know that's gotten out of prison are very successful out here in society. And you do have some that may, you know, get out and backslide on drugs. And I don't know if it's getting out backsliding on drugs. It’s maybe because they were doing drugs when they were in prison. So you do have those type of stories. But I think people, from what I know, and maybe it could be because of who I am, what we've done and where we're at in the world, especially in the podcast world, you know, where I don't get, I don't get the looks that other people make get, you know what I'm saying? Because, you know, people know my story or some people know my story, know where I came from, know where I'm at, know what I'm doing today. And they respect me, you know, as the person I am and which should be, you know, afforded to eve ryone. But everyone definitely don't get that.
Nyge: Well, do you have anything else that you want to add?
Earlonne: They have this one thing, man. And I've sat in these. And they're, they're they're called like restorative justice circles, you know, where you sit in a circle and you be in there with like victims of crime, survivors of crime, law enforcement, politicians. And you be like in the circle of, let's say, ten people and individuals talk about their experiences. Or you just may be in a circle with just survivors of crime and they tell you about, you know, what they went through and how they are dealing with it and why they are coming in to have those circles. And I think that is the most profound shit you can do while you in prison — is to be in one of those circles and have a different understanding. Because for people that commit crime, you know, people be faceless. You don't see them as people or you don't see them. All you seeing is the money or all you seeing is what you're trying to get out of it. You know what I'm saying? But when you, you know, put a face to people, you know, and really understand, you know, what your impact is, then you really have an understanding on life and you have an understanding on what you've been doing and what you've been partaking in. So I would say like, stuff like restorative justice circles should start way before prison. You know, that type of stuff should be in like junior high schools, high schools. And if, you know, juvenile halls, you know, to try to curb that mindset because it's a mindset that we put ourselves in.
So that’s the one thing I would say, accept the individual for who they are today, not who they were back whenever they were turnt up in the world doing criminal shit, you know?
Nyge: If you’d like to follow Earlonne’s work, you can find him @EarlonneWoods on Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow his show, Ear Hustle on social media @EarHustlesq and listen wherever you find your podcasts.
Nyge: Earlonne’s experience is just one example of life after incarceration, a pretty extraordinary example at that. That's why we thought it was super important to talk to someone who had a different experience. Natalie V. is a student at Berkeley and a member of the Underground Scholars. Our producer, Dominique French, sat down with Natalie to learn more about her and her story.
Natalie: So my name is Natalie V. I'm a mom. I'm a daughter, sister, granddaughter. I attend UC Berkeley as a sociology major. And I'm a part of the Underground Scholars of Berkeley. And the Underground Scholars is an organization that supports formerly incarcerated students, which I also am. My last incarceration was — I was 25 years old. So I'm 32 now. I was fortunate enough that the judge, instead of sending me to prison, allowed me to do a inpatient rehab, which, you know, addiction is a huge part of my story. So while I'm in this rehab, I'm like, “I've got 90 days until I'm released. I'm trying to figure this all out. Like, I know I want to do something different, but I don't really know what.” (Ah, I'm getting emotional.) But I was talking to somebody and I thought actually that because I had a felony on my record, that I wouldn't be allowed to go to college. I mean, that's how little I knew. I kind of thought it was like a job application. So I was thinking, all of these opportunities are now not available to me. But I found out there was a gentleman at a recovery meeting and he said, “Wait, no, there's like a whole group at UC Berkeley for people that have felonies or have been incarcerated before.” And like right there I was like, “Wait, what?” That was a defining moment in my life. Like, I could remember where I was, who I was with, and I was like, “That's what I'm going to do. Like, I'm going to Berkeley.” I feel very fortunate that I found out about Underground Scholars before I even enrolled in community college. Because not only was I empowered, like, “Oh, I can do this.” I felt open enough to like, be honest about my story. I didn't carry like that shame. And I kind of wonder if I didn't have these people come before me that like now they're Ph.D. students, or like they're just like these amazing people like that. It took away that stigma for me, you know, like that internal stigma. (Dominique: Absolutely.) Yeah. So I just from that point on, anything that I could do that was related to the Berkeley Underground scholars I like just jumped right on those opportunities.
Dominique: You're so excited about this program and what it was able to offer you
andSo it's making me emotional. Clearly, this was something that invested so much in you and that you invested so much in in return and, like, has blossomed into such a beautiful relationship. And I think that that's really amazing.
Natalie: Yes, definitely. Thank you.
Dominique: Of course. Of course. Now, one of the things that you said before is that you had had multiple incarcerations, which is very, very common. The prison system has a nasty way of sucking people back in after they've been released. What are some of the traps that the system uses to set people up to fail in that way?
Natalie: I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I feel like for myself a lot of it was like there was no healing involved in the whole process. And I think it's also like there's these pressures that like all of a sudden now you're out. You need to get a job. You need to like, you know, figure something out to like — for survival. And you have to figure it out fast because, you know, like you need somewhere to live, you need to eat. But like, in that pressure, there's kind of no time to heal. And I can speak only to my experience, but like having addiction be such a huge part of the reason, like why I was incarcerated, I didn't have time to, like, really focus on my recovery. Like, you know, in my addiction.
Dominique: Can you talk a little bit about what healing means to you personally?
Natalie: Yeah, I felt like that I really threw myself into school and it was great. Like for the first time, I was being recognized for my intelligence. I mean, I did good in school when I was younger, but I was also a troublemaker, so my teachers were like never too pleased with me. So it was like, “Wow, these people, see something in me,” you know? But I did not focus on the reasons why I had been using in the first place. I felt like, “If I just keep proving myself like, getting these As and these degrees like, that's all you need to do.” I wasn't doing any of the inner work and I felt like I was really relying on like outside things to make me happy, which is like a huge part of addiction. Is like, for me, I can be addicted to anything: like a relationship, substances, whatever it is outside of myself that like, can make me happy. So once I got into Berkeley, I felt like not healing from that really caught up with me.
I left an abusive relationship the first semester that I got to Berkeley, so I was just like in survival mode. And I really thought like, okay, once I get into Berkeley and get that acceptance, like life is just going to be up from there. And it wasn't. It was so — things got really hard and then the pandemic happened. And I actually — so I took last year off and literally in my mind, I was like, “You know, I tried school is not for me.” Like, I had that thinking. And then again, here comes like the Underground Scholar. So I have a mentor named Daniela. She's the co-director of Underground Scholars. She continued to check on me like — I wasn't coming around, you know, I was just having a really hard time. She always made sure that I knew that I belonged there because I felt really ashamed. It's like I had these scholarships. I felt like I was letting everybody down because I wasn't thriving in my academics anymore. And she didn't see me for just a person that gets A's. She saw me like as a whole person, and that felt really good. And I felt like last year was the first time in my life that I really took a step back and like did like inner work, especially around like my addiction. You know, started doing therapy and all of those things. Like I was thinking today, it was like I was driving and I felt like, you know what? I'm not in survival mode. And I just felt like I was so stuck in survival mode for a long time, but I didn't realize it. It wasn't until like I've been doing like these healing things that I was like, “Wow, like this feels really good,” you know? There's a saying I really like that healing is not linear and that's very, very true for me. And right now I'm just kind of learning the tools for like when I do hit another hard time in my life, like I'm building this toolbox of like things that I can go back to and now like, “Okay, I can utilize this” and not setting such a high standard for myself. But it's definitely — it takes a lot of work. And for me, a lot of my healing came from talking to people that have been where I am.
Dominique: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. And I'm so happy that you had that moment today just driving down the street when you're like, “Damn, I am not in survival mode,” because once you realize that, like at any point in your life, you're like, “Whoa, I was in survival mode for so long! I didn't even realize.” One thing that you said that really stuck with me is that your mentor really helped you to feel like a whole person. She treated you like a whole person. And something that happens in the system is this stripping away of rights and not only rights, but dignities. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with losing those rights and dignities, but also the ways that you recovered and found them once you were released?
Natalie: Yes. I'll start with the positives, because, like, well, it's coming to my mind about how I have found like dignity or just like being treated like a whole person is in community, like Underground Scholars. I also have like recovery community. But it's never done on my own. It's always with other people. And there was moments during my incarceration where I literally — I mean, this is probably like a cliche thing to say — but I literally felt like an animal, like in a cage. I remember feeling like just sitting there, like waiting for my food to come to me. Something that really stands out to me is like, the guards. So they're supposed to give you feminine hygiene products and there's like 20 girls, like, in a pod, and they would intentionally give you, like, less than they know you needed. So I saw women, like, having to fight for, like, a basic need, right? (Dominique: Jesus.) Yeah, but largely in part because of the Berkeley Underground Scholars, I feel very supported. Fortunately, like being a Berkeley student, they help with housing. So I got to live in family housing where they didn’t, they didn't check my record. But before that, I never even applied to live anywhere else, even though I had probably the money to do it because I was so worried of hearing, “No.” I think they do ask a lot of places, or they'll do a background check. So I was always fearful of getting that, “No.”
Dominique: The stigma stopped you before you even got to the, the little box that you check.
Natalie: Yes. And it's unfortunate that — because I don't think just because I'm a student, I should be, be allowed to have access to all these resources. Like, they should be available to anybody.
Dominique: Can you walk me through some of the emotions that you, or your peers who have been in similar situations as you, have experienced after release?
Natalie: Yes. There's like this kind of disappointment sometimes. Like you're happy to be out. But I think, like when you're in, right, you're kind of romanticizing what it means to be free. Like, “Oh, I just need this,” right? But then life kind of shows up and you're having to navigate that, with like not having housing or access to mental health resources. So I think like, it's just kind of scary. Like you could be kind of in limbo, like, “Okay, what am I going to do next? I have to do something,” right?
Dominique: I can't imagine how difficult that would be to be thrust out like that into like the blinding light of day and just sort of be told like, “Good luck!”
Natalie: Yes, definitely. I think that's how it feels. Like, I think about this a lot. Without the Berkeley Underground Scholars, I don't know how my life would have gone. And it just, it really, it's amazing to me that it's changed not only just my life, but like even my son's life. Like he's going to have a mom that graduated college. Now we have, you know, more opportunities that — so it helps, you know, not just the person, but I think their families as well.
Dominique: If you were in complete control of our country's justice system, what is the major change that you would make?
Natalie: I would definitely want to make it so that we do not rely on police and prisons for justice and public safety. You know, there's been a lot of talk lately about defunding the police, and I really think that is a step in the right direction. I don't know if you all are familiar with the term, but it's called abolition. And there was a lot of talk about prison reform in the past. And now the talk has kind of moved to abolition, which is really re-imagining a world without police and prisons. And it's like, you know, when I first heard that, I'm like, “What? Like, how would people be safe?” Like even myself having experienced such, you know, trauma and just like how horrific the system is. Even myself was very apprehensive to this idea, right? But I'm now in a place where it's like, “Oh, I get it.” We’ve been so conditioned to think that true justice is like hurting the other person.
So I think if I was in complete control, like, we would be moving away from that. And I think it is possible to and it starts with things like defunding the police and investing in our communities, investing in education, investing in organizations that actually keep people safe. And also, I do not like what the police do. I do not like the institution of policing. But I think, you know, thinking of everybody in society, I think we're doing a lot of harm to the police as well. Because we are throwing them in this system. It's designed to dehumanize certain communities, certain people, right? I have actually law enforcement in my family. There's even people of color that join the police force because we've been told, like police keep our community safe. For a long time, like that’s even what I thought. And yeah, and I think also, to kind of like, I hear a lot of kind of like rhetoric about nonviolent versus violent offenders. But I also find that to be really harmful, right? Because I am also like — I have loved ones that have committed, you know, a harm. And I think we're all capable of harm in different ways. And I think that it's — we should really think about everybody when we're in conversation about like: who is worthy of healing? If I could, if I was in charge of like our country's justice system, it would not be rooted in violence, in vengeance, revenge, but it would be rooted in — in love, in transformation, in healing.
Dominique: Thank you so, so much. This has been enlightening and enriching and I am so glad that I got a chance to meet you.
Natalie: Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate the opportunity.
Nyge: You can learn more about the underground scholars by visiting their website. UndergroundScholars.Berkeley.edu. Listening to their podcast Natalie produces “On The Tier” on Spotify or following them on Instagram @theundergroundscholars.
What this episode has helped me to understand is that starting over doesn't have to happen alone. As Natalie said, healing happens in community with others. For those who have been recently incarcerated, leaning on supportive organizations and talking with people who have been through the same experience can really help.
I also learned that right now, just because of a mistake, you can literally lose the right to your own body. Things should be set up to try to help people as much as possible, not give them the harshest punishment available. Our current system is based off of vengeance and revenge, and a shift away from that could create a new system that is focused on healing. That's the society that I want to live in.
You can find more information and resources on our website at adultishpodcast.com.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation.
Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and by me, ya boy Nyge Turner.
Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin. Our Director of Podcasting is Ray Archie.
Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, and Jacob Armenta. Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Art for this episode by Brigido Bautista and art direction by Marjerrie Masicat. Creative direction by Pedro Vega, Jr.
Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm. And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated.
You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and on that note, we will see y’all later.