Crime Podcasts and Mass Incarceration: An Unlikely Partnership

Written by Myron J. Clifton

The movement to end mass incarceration in all of its forms continues to gain momentum as more Americans understand the systemic unfairness and tally the cost of maintaining the most expensive prison and jail system ever.

Millions of Americans are locked up in local, State, and Federal jails and prisons for non-violent offenses, a twisted version of “Reading, Writing and ‘Rythmatic” that could be titled: Retribution, Revenge, and Recidivism.

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Scholars and activists continue doing the work necessary to end mass incarceration by advocating for changed laws, equal application of the law, alternative sentencing, and of course addressing the underlying causes that serve as gateways for kids and adults to intersect with law enforcement.

The pushback is real, active, and is being effectively applied across disciplines in cities and suburbs and in “red” and “blue” states.

Gone are the days of acceptance of false science of “super-predators” and the fear mongering that led to draconian and overcorrecting “three-strikes” laws that sentenced teenagers to life sentences for minor offenses. The prevalence of over-sentencing necessarily led to post-sentencing review investigators who are tasked with ensuring fairness in sentencing.

In addition, and perhaps effectively due to recent glamour cases that led to release of innocent Americans, there are a growing number of state sanctioned groups such as “The Innocence Project,” who deep dive into cases that appear to be miscarriages of justice – most commonly – wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project and others like it do the necessary legal, discovery,  and investigational work necessary to prove a person’s innocence and/or that one isn’t guilty. The results may even lead the law to actual perpetrators, though that is not their purpose or obligation.

The Innocence Project

Millions of Americans are familiar with The Innocence Project and other such groups that are popular on crime Podcasts. Podcasts that focus on all aspects of crime, including Unsolved, Serial, Financial, Closed Cases, Celebrity, and of course, Wrongful Conviction are some of the most popular and celebrated podcasts. Many of the crime podcasters even tour the country to meet and greet their fans while sharing updates to old stories and introducing new cases before they hit the airways.

It is not lost on anyone that the reason there are so many crime related podcasts is simply due to the fact that America has an endless supply of crime stories that are generated by millions of prisoners who have stories to tell. Add in the families who remain tormented by wrongly convicted loved ones or long forgotten family criminal history and thus can be receptive when podcasters and their teams come calling.

The popularity of such podcasts are growing to the point their stories and discoveries bubble up to the mainstream media with national news coverage, in depth think-pieces written by the major newspapers and magazines, and multiple bestsellers populating various bestseller lists. There are even crime podcasts about crime podcasts.

From Criminal, Crime Junkie, Dr. Death, Man in the Window, Murder Book, Over My Dead Body, Root of Evil, Someone Knows Something, The Queen, The Minds of Madness, The Pope’s Long Con, Uncover, Unobscured, Canadian True Crime, and three of the biggest and most popular: Undisclosed with the mellifluous voiced Rabia O’chaudry, who continue to champion Adnan Syed’s innocence via regular podcast updates and her best selling book; Truth and Justice with Bob Ruff, and his self-titled “truth and justice army” of listeners, and, of course the one that gave the biggest boost to the criminal podcast industry: Serial which first chronicled the story of Adnan and the murder of Hae Min Lee.

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The hosts range from lawyers, professors, bloggers, former firefighters, retired police officers, and people who just found a niche and made a name for themselves and their podcasts with compelling writing and storytelling, riveting suspense, uncertain outcomes, and the hope for the “Gotcha” discovery that solves a crime and maybe helps a wrongly incarcerated person to be released from prison. There’s also the subversive appeal of exposing crooked cops, corrupt prosecutors, and a broken and ineffective criminal justice system.

The cases that result in a release from prison are rare, even when through excellent writing and breathless narration the audience is led to believe the subject of the story simply has to be innocent and immediately released.

But just as in real life, getting out of prison is not easy and not resolved over the course of a podcast series. And most of the time the extra data, witnesses coming forward, or the biggest hope – exoneration via newly discovered and/or untested DNA – still do not result in finding someone innocent or not guilty or being released from prison.

The law doesn’t care about a podcast’s often one-sided view of a case. For no matter how the listener is assured by the expert who validates the podcaster’s assertion the Courts aren’t so easily moved. There are tens of thousands of non-violent offenders who know all too well the intransigence of the courts.

“But no matter because there’s a new season, a new prisoner, and a new case to dig into and get excited about so dear listener, let’s move on and every now and then I’ll give you an update that mostly likely will be how our “innocent” criminal topic of season ‘4’, is still incarcerated and it’ll be another couple of years before I give you another update. If then.”

As with everything in America there is a racial component that stands out with crime podcasts and podcasters. The storytellers are overwhelmingly white. That most prisoners are Black and other POC, it stands to reason that many of those whose cases are investigated are Black/POC. It thus begs the questions why are there so few Black podcasters telling those stories, working with Black investigators, and utilizing Black activists who are also seeking exonerations and proof of innocence for clients?

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There are many Black podcasters who cover all the things podcasts tend to cover from comedy – Small, Doses, The Black Guy Who Tips, and So Many White Guys; social commentary – Code Switch and Still Processing; sports – Skip and Shannon and Stephen A. Smith shows; movie and TV reviews – Black Girl Nerds; food – Brown Vegan; and travel – Black Woman Travel Podcast; and general storytelling – Snap Judgement, and Ear Hustle.

Clearly, Black people, as it is often said by Black people, are not a monolith and yet with the exception of the excellent Ear Hustle – which is about incarcerated men at Folsom State prison, there remains a dearth of crime podcasts that focus on investigation, exoneration, and release.

And its not only the crime broadcasters who are mostly white, but also the experts who are brought on the broadcasts to lend their experience, connections, and credibility to the podcasts. From lawyers and investigators, scientists in various disciplines, to tenured and retired criminal law professors, and of course retired police officers, detectives, mayors, and sheriffs. The support is almost always white and male.

It does make some sense because those are the individuals, white and male, who dominate those roles in society – which is another essay for another day. And the skill and expertise they lend to the podcasts do what they are supposed to do: add credible and expert voices that appear objective – no matter the eventual outcome – so as to hook the listener and get them to emotionally invest in the developing story enough to listen to the advertisements, but books, visit blogs, and attend conventions.

But as mentioned above there are hundreds if not thousands of activists on the ground doing the work of dismantling mass incarceration, helping former prisoners reintegrate into life, working to keep teens out of jail, and working with abused women and crime victims to tell their stories in an honest way that leads to systemic change. Further, the activists work to defeat the end to end system that often re-abuses the very people it is designed to protect.

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The success of crime podcasts that often center wrongful convictions, corrupt and indifferent police, overtaxed DNA and rape kit testing, snitches, payoffs, faked jailhouse confessions, sketchy and unbelievable witnesses, can also re-traumatize families who are often left behind – often at their request. We’ve seen the pushback with Hae Min Lee’s family to the focus on Adnan and his alleged innocence.

But what of her family who are still grieving their daughter? And who tells the stories of the victims of the crimes the podcasters dig deep into in their efforts to prove the innocence of the “hero” of their podcasts?

The work being done by activists and, to a much smaller degree, podcasters, is critical to eventual release, exoneration, and reunification of prisoners and families and is wonderful and worthy of the mostly positive attention the podcasts and podcasters receive even if the on-the-ground activists remain largely ignored.

How much more powerful and how much more success can podcasts achieve when they fully incorporate Black scientists, Black law enforcement, Black detectives, Black lawyers and doctors, and perhaps most important – Black activists who are doing the work everyday with little to no resources and in relative obscurity? How powerful would it be to add the voices of those most at risk of being a victim of the justice system but who are also actively working to address the inequities that harm Black and POC communities more than any others?

Without including Black experts most podcasts run the risk of being another outlet owned and operated by white men who are profiting from America’s mass incarceration of Black and POC citizens. They run the risk of being opportunists who are capitalizing on Black pain and suffering using a never ending supply of awful stories provided by the victims of a system many believe is doing as it is designed: taking away the lives of the society’s current and historical most vulnerable citizens.

Crime podcasts are a relatively new medium and provide a unique opportunity and avenue to inform the electorate of what is happening within the systems that they are supporting with their tax dollars while giving us all ammunition to use to instigate change and hold elected officials accountable.

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It is no longer good enough to tell our stories without involving our own experts who are uniquely qualified to add texture, context, and emotional authenticity to stories that are birthed in our communities.

Black and POC Americans hold the dubious dishonor of being the human fuel that drive all aspects of mass incarceration, who are arrested the most, sentenced the longest, exonerated least often, and with the most traumatized families and communities. To not involve our experts is a correctable oversight that when fixed will also address the apparent lack of awareness of a critical aspect of storytelling that is made stronger by authentic voices personally deeply aware of the subject matter in ways that almost all of the podcasters are not.

To add our expertise at every step of the investigations will only serve to strengthen the podcasts and while furthering the education of the podcasters and their audiences.

© 2019 by Myron J. Clifton, Dear Dean Publishing. All Rights Reserved. 

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