Nigel Poor, a photography professor at California State University-Sacramento, spoke at the Michigan Theater Thursday night for the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. About 200 University of Michigan students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents came to hear Poor speak about her work within San Quentin State Prison, a men’s detention facility in California.
At San Quentin, Poor teaches an art history class to inmates and produces her podcast “Ear Hustle,” which details life inside the walls of prison.
Poor became involved in the San Quentin State Prison in 2011 through the Prison University Project, a program in which professors from Northern California universities volunteer to teach college courses to inmates.
According to Poor, the prison administration informed her if she taught a course on the history of photography, she would not be allowed to show images of sex, children, violence, drugs or “complicated emotional imagery.” Poor scheduled a meeting with the prison warden and another department secretary and, after describing her curriculum, was granted permission to teach the class as she originally intended.
The men in the facility were not allowed to have cameras, but Poor wanted them to experience creating art of their own. The inmates were given images of well-known art and instructed to “map” the images by writing their observations and thoughts on top of the images. On the back of the image, they wrote narratives about the picture and their experience.
Art & Design freshman Elizabeth Mizer commented on Poor’s artistic work at the prison.
“Well I think it’s really important for people in the prison to get to experience like creativity and imagination when they don’t really normally get to have access to that,” Mizer said.
Lieutenant Sam Robinson, public information officer at San Quentin, presented Poor with a box of negatives taken by correctional officers between 1930 and 1987. The archived pictures displayed a variety of subjects, from typical cells to weddings to murders. Over a few years, the archives became the focus of mapping work by Poor and a group of incarcerated individuals.
“One of the things that’s important to me about this archive is that it documents life inside (prison) in all of its nuances … and reinforces the important realization that life exists in prison,” Poor said. “I think people often have the idea that when someone goes into a prison their life is over. And it’s such a misconception. People love, people get educated, people have jobs, people grow and change, and everything that happens on the outside, happens inside the prison.”
After working with the archived images, Poor became more interested in other types of storytelling and started a radio project with other inmates in 2013. This work in audio led to the creation of “Ear Hustle.”
Earlonne Woods, an inmate serving 31 years for attempted second-degree robbery, is Poor’s co-host and co-producer.
“He is the best professional colleague I have ever worked with,” Poor said.
“Ear Hustle” was initially played on a closed circuit station in the San Quentin State Prison. Poor eventually submitted the podcasts to Radiotopia, a podcast network looking for a new show. Radiotopia received over 1,500 applications and “Ear Hustle” won the competition.
The podcast's audience rapidly expanded. The podcast has been downloaded over 17 million times and is broadcasted in all California prisons, some U.S. prisons and over 100 detention facilities in the United Kingdom.
The interviews with inmates cover a variety of topics. The episode “Unwritten” explored the racial “rules” of prison culture, including segregation. While many of the topics are heavy, a lot of the episodes highlight the humanity and humor of the inmates. One episode asked a variety of inmates in the yard what animal they would be if they could be any animal. The answers ranged from a penguin to a “wish dragon” to a jellyfish, highlighting the lighthearted nature of many of the men.
Art & Design junior Marjorie Gaber said Poor’s work helps create a network of understanding between the incarcerated and the public.
“I think that her work along with PCAP … It does a lot to not just connect prisoners with the outside world but connect us with prisoners,” Gaber said.
Gaber spoke about the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project, a program where people impacted by criminal justice are in collaboration with University students. This year, students, faculty and staff— many who are involved with the Residential College program — have been organizing to establish a campus unit dedicated to study of the carceral state.
“PCAP talks about how a lot of their work helps build empathy towards prisoners and how it’s really useful in bringing the public support for prison reforms,” Gaber said.
Poor’s podcast has sparked conversation among its listeners and works to truthfully portray the lives of incarcerated individuals.
“When you work in prison, people expect it to be heavy and depressing and it’s not,” Poor said. “There’s love, there’s humor, there’s challenges and I think that really comes across in the podcast.”