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A Conversation With Podcast Producer Eve Abrams Of 'Unprisoned'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in New Orleans a little longer to hear about the men and women who've been most affected by the city's criminal justice system. Their stories are featured in a podcast called "Unprisoned." It's a deep dive into what mass incarceration looks like for those who've lived it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "UNPRISONED: STORIES FROM THE SYSTEM")

GREGORY FINNEY: Before I went to prison, I was voting. I never missed voting before I went to prison. I used to make sure I get this 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning, just to be the first one in there. I committed a drug crime. We can't vote. So - it ain't I feel left out; I'm left out.

MARTIN: The second season of "Unprisoned" is now available for streaming online. And the creator and host of "Unprisoned," radio documentarian Eve Abrams, is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

EVE ABRAMS: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: It's an interesting idea for a podcast. Now, we just heard about how New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. I just want to - I want to say Louisiana has. So one could imagine just how big of an issue policing and incarceration are in the city if people talk about it because sometimes people don't talk about the issue that's, like, right in front of them. So I'm wondering how this idea came to you. Was there something in particular that kind of made you think of this in this way?

ABRAMS: Well, I kept thinking about the statistics you just talked about and thinking that if this is such a big problem, how does that ripple out to the city in which I live? And I have a background as a teacher as well as an audio documentarian. And so one of the places I naturally gravitated towards was young people. I kept thinking, you know, how does this reverberate and ripple out into families and communities? And when I started looking, when I opened my eyes to that, I found stories literally everywhere in New Orleans because this just ripples out beyond the prison walls, and it affects people on the outside.

MARTIN: One topic you take on in several episodes in the series is something that has come to be called the school-to-prison pipeline. Now, New Orleans has a unique school system, especially - since Katrina, since Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, mostly made up of charter schools. And there's been a lot of debate over disciplinary practices at charter schools in relation to this issue. Now, in Season 1, we hear from a senior at one of the charter schools, Asha Lane, and she's talking with one of her peers about this issue. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "UNPRISONED: STORIES FROM THE SYSTEM")

ASHA LANE: The school is tense. The security guards yell and treat us like we're inmates. They routinely grab students by their shirts. And they're big guys, so they often physically pick students up off the floor. My friend Ronnie thinks they're setting exactly the wrong example.

RONNIE: It's like they're trying to solve violence with violence. And we're not in a prison. This is school. We're supposed to be here to get our education.

MARTIN: I just - that, I just thought was fascinating. Why did you spend so much time highlighting that relationship between schools and prisons?

ABRAMS: Well, that was what the young people that I spoke with were interested in and Asha was interested in. There was a classroom that I went to, and there were students in that class that came from high schools all over the city of New Orleans. And they all had this common experience. And I thought, if they're so passionate and upset about this, you know, let's follow this. And I thought that because Asha was the reporter with me, we got moments like the one you just played.

There was another moment in that story where a student said it's really hard to concentrate on your math problems when there's somebody with a gun on their hip in your classroom. And I think that these measures that we adults take to ensure safety, I'm not sure how we're checking them against the experiences of young people. And there was another moment, actually, in that story where Calvin Duncan sings for us a nursery rhyme that he knew as a child that goes like this - Angola, when I was 1, they booked me for shooting that gun. And he goes on and he sings the entire nursery rhyme.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "UNPRISONED: STORIES FROM THE SYSTEM")

CALVIN DUNCAN: (Singing) When I was five, five, five, five, they booked me for shooting that jive, jive, jive, jive. Way down yonder on that farm, picking that cotton all day long, Angola...

ABRAMS: He recounts how he ended up in Angola Penitentiary. He spent 28 1/2 years on a wrongful conviction before he was released with the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans. And he was in a group of men - other incarcerated men in Angola. And they realized that they had all sung this same nursery rhyme as children.

Now, fortunately, in Calvin's case, he actually became a jailhouse lawyer in Angola, and he helped bring a case to the Supreme Court last year, Ramos v. Louisiana, about nonunanimous juries in which the Supreme Court found that nonunanimous jury convictions were, in fact, unconstitutional. And Calvin, despite singing this nursery rhyme as a child about ending up in Angola, he's now in law school. So that's a happy story (laughter). But you see through his experience that what we do to children at a very young age really impacts them later on in life.

MARTIN: Yeah. What do you think people might learn from your podcast that might help them think about this in a way that might be constructive?

ABRAMS: I think a lot of our assumptions are based upon what we hear in the news and television shows like "Law & Order." Most people are not going to walk into a jail or prison unless they have to. And I think it can help people understand what's really going on, not just a version that, you know, we learned in high school and we want to believe in, but what is actually going on in our name.

MARTIN: Eve Abrams is a radio documentarian based in New Orleans. Her podcast, "Unprisoned," is available for streaming online now.

Eve Abrams, thank you so much for joining us.

ABRAMS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.