Podcast Producer Tells His Own Story From Prison

Podcast Producer Tells His Own Story From Prison

August 2, 2023 | Julie Reynolds Martínez

A graphic image for the podcast, Afterlife, depicting a police car following another car and the title of the episode: AFTER LIFE | Episode 1 The Neighborhood.

Following the shooting death of a close friend in the late 1990s, a young Gilbert Bao participated in a drive-by shooting. While that incident claimed no victims, Gilbert was sentenced to life in prison plus 24 years under California’s gang enhancement laws.

When Gilbert and I met in 2018, he expected to spend the rest of his days in prison. Still, he dedicated himself to supporting and educating his incarcerated peers on the effects of trauma and how to overcome what he calls “stinking thinking.”

The original idea behind the podcast, which we would eventually call After Life, was to document Gilbert’s experience serving time and its long-term impact on his family. Having covered prison reform in California for nearly two decades, I understood the importance of telling this story about people like Gilbert who were helping others while serving a life sentence.

But the project changed dramatically when, soon after we started planning, California lawmakers gave Gilbert and others like him an unexpected chance to parole as a “youth offender.” While Gilbert waited to find out if he was going home, his brother was shot and killed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. We later discovered and then revealed on the podcast that the deputy was quietly convicted of criminal corruption in another case, but he has never served time and remains on duty.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2019, Gilbert was released after more than 20 years inside. Less than six months later, COVID-19 forced the world into lockdown, preventing him from connecting to the men he met in prison and the restorative justice programs he had developed in prison. In 2021, one of his closest collaborators in those programs died from COVID, but Gilbert went on to work with men in prison, honoring her memory.

Over the four years it took to finish the project, we were a three-person team: me, Gilbert, and my niece and creative partner, Mara J. Reynolds. We mostly worked remotely, under extremely stressful circumstances and a very limited budget, strengthened by a belief that we could set an example of incarcerated people taking a lead in telling their own stories. As a co-producer, Gilbert recorded much of his own audio and interviewed family and friends, steering the narrative where he thought it needed to go.

Mara and I viewed our role as providing the experience, tools, and scaffolding for Gilbert to tell this story in his own voice, supplemented with narrative context to reach and impact the broadest possible audience. Gilbert and, at times, his family had a hand in every aspect of the podcast, from deciding which leads to pursue to editing raw audio to producing original episode art. For example, we were careful to check in with the family before including the results of our investigation into the officer who killed Gilbert’s brother, mindful that those details could be retraumatizing.

We believe this kind of respectful, trauma-aware collaboration models how journalists can work alongside subjects—including incarcerated people—who have long been marginalized by reporters and other gatekeepers.

It’s been gratifying to hear an editor of a national publication tell me our approach has “reshaped the field” by exemplifying new ways reporters can work with subjects whose agency has long been suppressed. After Life continues reaching beyond its intended audience of formerly incarcerated people, becoming much more than just a podcast. Since publication, we have launched an ongoing series of events, including the following.

  • Training for journalists who report on people who’ve experienced incarceration, the child welfare system, and generational trauma.
  • Conversations between victims and perpetrators of violence held inside a California state prison.
  • An online discussion showing how people who’ve been to prison can share their stories to reshape society.
  • Producing transcripts to send cost-free to incarcerated people and others unable to hear the podcast and events.

Perhaps our most powerful event was held this past April, with 300 incarcerated men at the California state prison in Norco. They joined Gilbert, our co-reporter George Sánchez, and me for an in-person workshop about trauma and the power of telling our stories. Several men spoke about the moment they realized that their own story also matters.

“It gives us the ability to reflect on the ripple effect of violence. I was a victim. I‘ve victimized people,” one man said through tears. “That shit hurts.” These conversations already serve as inspiration for our upcoming season, in which elders who have survived trauma and work for societal change explore the potential roles of victims, survivors, and even perpetrators in fixing broken systems.

Julie Reynolds Martinez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a co-producer of the podcast After Life, which is a finalist for the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in the podcast/radio category. As a freelance journalist, Reynolds Martínez has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild, and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.