“My reputation is what I’ve done. But my character is who I am.”
This is how the listener meets Theron Hall, a 35-year-old man serving a life sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. At first, Hall is explaining how he got his prison nickname: Pit Bull. But he quickly elevates his story, from a chronology of events to an exploration of remorse and his intent to live a better life.
“I’m learning,” he tells his interviewer, “that Theron is actually a very compassionate person.”
That kind of reflection forms the foundation of “Making Amends,” a podcast released in January and created by Steve Herbert, the Mark Torrance Professor of Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington. Herbert taught and audio-recorded a class on atonement at the Oregon prison in early 2020; he also conducted one-on-one interviews with several class participants. The podcast provides a storytelling medium for the individual reflections of six men, and the sharing with a wider audience themes of harm, regret and the capacity for change.
The stories of these six men mirror those of thousands of other people who are incarcerated, Herbert explains. Given the number of people incarcerated in the United States — more than any other country — these stories also reveal larger societal attitudes toward wrongdoing and punishment.
“We have 2 million people whose stories we largely ignore, and many have very compelling stories. Many are wracked with remorse. Many want to be something other than the worst thing they’ve ever done, and they are trying hard to be that person,” Herbert said. “But we don’t make it as easy for them as we should and we don’t recognize that change as often as we should. Nobody benefits from that. We’re not safer, we’re not a better society by ignoring those stories.
“We could have a more cost-effective, and a more generally effective, criminal justice system if we took these stories seriously.”
The podcast is the culmination of years of teaching and outreach inside prisons for Herbert, primarily at the Monroe Correctional Complex northeast of Seattle. After writing a 2019 book on life-sentenced prisoners, he sought to find another medium to tell stories of prisoner change. He ultimately found an entry point for an audio storytelling project, via the Oregon Department of Corrections’ maximum-security facility in Salem. And while the COVID-19 pandemic cut his time a bit short at the prison last winter, Herbert determined that he had enough to create an eight-episode first season.
Herbert sat down with UW News to discuss the experience of “Making Amends.”
How did you combine your role as an academic with that of a podcast interviewer?
Inside every prison I’ve done work in, there has been a community of like-minded prisoners who are supporting each other in their efforts to live a better life and to be a better person, and so for the podcast, I was looking for a way to get those stories and try to get a sense of whatever community might exist.
For each of the classes I taught, I wrote a five- or six-page reading that was a summary of a lot of the literature that explores the nature of wrongdoing: What are the ways that we harm each other, how do we feel about ourselves when we recognize that we’ve harmed somebody else, how do other people feel about us when we harm them. If we’ve done damage, what are the different strategies available to us for repairing that damage? It enabled me to draw upon what I knew — and needed to learn a little bit better — in terms of the philosophy of punishment, the nature of wrongdoing, and the nature of repair. I would start teaching first thing in the morning on Tuesdays, and then do my interviews before jumping on the train back to Seattle.
How did you settle on whom to interview, and what do you know of them now?
The chaplains’ area of the prison has a long history of bringing in outsiders for classes, bringing in students from Willamette University, Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. So that area was used to having outside people come in, but I was the first person, to my knowledge, to have permission to do audio recording.
I started teaching this class the very first part of January. I had gone in the previous June and September, and each time met with the chaplains and some number of the men, many of whom ended up in the class. So they had met me, had heard what I was trying to accomplish and understood what my goals were. They made a conscious decision to be part of the podcast, and they knew that I was going to ask them specifics about their crimes. They were under no illusions about what I was trying to accomplish and were eager to participate. Some of them were a little bit more comfortable because they had told their story more often, and some of them were a bit less practiced and were more shy.
[Since then,] I’ve been in sporadic email contact with two of them. They’ve heard the podcast, and I’m very happy to say they like it very much. My biggest worry was that they would feel that I hadn’t done their stories justice, so I’m very relieved and honored to hear they feel like I did.
What did you learn about the podcast format?
That the audience is listening, rather than reading. I learned a lot about audio storytelling, how to collect audio recordings, how to write for the microphone instead of for the page. Weaving stories together was perhaps the biggest challenge.
The feedback I had from people who listened to the first cut of the first episode was that my tone was all wrong. I was too professorial. My words were too long, my sentences were too long, I sounded a little stilted. I had to learn to write as if I was in conversation with someone, rather than being read by someone.
Doing a podcast certainly drew upon my skills as an academic researcher: Analyzing the interview data for the podcast was the same as if I was doing it for a book or an article, and so certainly my prior experience as a researcher was indispensable. With the podcast, I’m excited to reach a wider audience than I could if I were only writing books.
Is there anything you wish you’d been able to include?
I couldn’t interview everyone as often as I wanted. We had planned a culminating event, where the men were going to write some reflections of their experience and invite people from outside. We were in the process of fleshing out what that would look like when the pandemic hit. I left one Tuesday, as usual, and was told two days later I couldn’t come back. So I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, or wrap up the experience with them. It still feels unfinished, and I’m hoping that I’ll get back in there, maybe by the end of the summer.
Do you have plans for additional seasons?
I am in active conversations with relevant parties about two potential follow-up series. But each will require access to prisons. As it starts to look possible for prisons to reopen to visitors, my plans will hopefully take clearer shape. There are many stories about our criminal justice process that the podcast format lends itself to telling. I am excited to explore these additional possibilities.