Tim Ferriss Goes to Maximum Security Prison (#323)

Photo: Josh Estey

In this podcast, I had the rare opportunity to interview three men in Level 4 maximum security at Kern Valley State Prison. There was no time to do homework on any of them, so I crossed my fingers and jumped in. It was incredibly nerve-wracking and, ultimately, incredibly rewarding and fun. Any expectations I might have had going in were exceeded.

I owe special thanks to Cat Hoke, all the men who participate in Defy (the program Cat started), and all the staff and officers at Kern, including Chief Deputy Warden Goss who made it possible for me to bring recording equipment. Thank you for the help, sir!

If you’re interested in a similar prison visit after listening to this episode, Cat now has five more trips lined up. Simply email admin@cathoke.com for more details. If this episode moves you in any way, make sure to check out Defy and other groups doing this work and making an impact, like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).


Tim Ferriss Goes to Maximum Security Prison

Want to hear another inspiring conversation? — Check out my interview with Catherine Hoke, the founder of Defy Ventures and author of A Second Chance. Stream below or right-click here to download.

Catherine Hoke — The Master of Second Chances

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…



  • A lengthier introduction than most, establishing how this unique episode came together, and why I think it’s an important listen for all of us. [04:34]
  • On a societal level, what’s more likely to reduce recidivism among those convicted of serious crimes: punishment or rehabilitation? [07:42]
  • Why getting permission to bring recording equipment into a maximum security prison is problematic. [09:23]
  • Don’t empathize with people in prison? Try the “step to the line” exercise. [10:22]
  • How you can experience a prison visit like this one. [14:18]
  • If you’re ashamed of backsliding in your goals, here’s a helpful follow up from Jason, one of the men you’ll meet in this episode. [14:40]
  • Setting the scene: visitation center. [17:15]
  • Meet Jason. [17:40]
  • Meet Ian. [18:09]
  • Meet Brandon. [18:57]
  • What catalyzed the choice these men made to change their trajectory? [19:38]
  • Jason’s story. [20:24]
  • Ian’s story. [22:54]
  • Brandon’s story. [26:54]
  • New beliefs a chaplain instilled in once-atheist Brandon. [29:42]
  • What new beliefs have helped Jason stay on his path? [30:49]
  • Good influences and beliefs that have helped Ian. [31:41]
  • How do these men try to influence others to course correct? Who do they choose to approach, and why? [33:34]
  • What have been the most effective approaches for guiding others toward redirection? [35:26]
  • Creating change from the inside out. [38:23]
  • Are there patterns that lead to people straying from their path? What can be done to help them back once such a pattern has been identified? [39:48]
  • Did anything from Jason’s gang experience translate into something he can use in a positive way today? [42:35]
  • The others weigh in on Jason’s skills, reputation, and values. [44:11]
  • Where would these men like to be in three years, and what are they doing to pave the way there? [45:49]
  • Ian’s answer. [45:54]
  • Jason’s answer. [47:34]
  • What keeps them going? What would make them look back on their time here with pride? [47:59]
  • Tools helpful for nudging others toward a better path. [49:09]
  • Practical and purpose-driven questions that lead to problem solving. [50:27]
  • How does Ian look back on the crimes that got him sentenced to prison? [52:59]
  • Resisting temptation or recovering from a relapse. [54:40]
  • Ian tries to lead by example, but even he loses his cool sometimes. He shares one incident and how he managed to de-escalate it. [55:51]
  • Jason tries to foresee possible outcomes and avoid escalation from the get-go, but understands that variables can throw a wrench in any plan. [1:00:00]
  • Brandon admits he loses his cool and snaps fairly regularly. He tries to run through a mental checklist to take a breath before saying something regrettable and leans on the other two for help on this front. Here’s one story where he overcame these urges and did the right thing. [1:01:16]
  • Where would Brandon like to be three years from now? [1:06:26]
  • These three produce the Kern Valley 180 Podcast. How did this come about, and what are the logistics? Is it available to people outside the system? [1:07:13]
  • Ian asks what compelled me to come to a level four maximum security prison and sit down with them. [1:10:13]
  • Ian explains one of the podcast’s main goals. [1:12:39]
  • Jason asks how I come up with questions for understanding what makes people tick. [1:15:59]
  • Ian’s parting thoughts. [1:22:58]
  • Brandon’s parting thoughts. [1:23:51]
  • Jason’s parting thoughts. [1:24:44]
  • My parting thoughts. [1:25:29]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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34 Replies to “Tim Ferriss Goes to Maximum Security Prison (#323)”

  1. Tim:

    Great podcast. Really enjoyed it and am very pleased that you help others understand that those inside or no different than those that are not. Choices made the difference and all people are essentially good.

    There was a mention that the prison has its own podcast. Is this currently available? If so, can you point me in the right direction to locate it? I have tried looking in iTunes without success.

    1. The guys can be reached by email using JPAY.com. they can provide additional details on podcast. I think they have interviewed some Veterans thus far. you would need to register for an account and fund email usage. The fee per email is around $0.33 per email. Snail mail is also an option. Thank you for your time and consideration.

      Jason S. Holland K24824

      Brad Menard AH8804

      Kern Valley State Prison C3 120

      P O Box 5103

      Delano, CA 93216

  2. As always, the work and the podcasts are wonderful. I hope this experience will drive you to learn more about people who need other supports to find success. There is a tremendous number of people who live so close to the edge that would benefit from the advice, lives and experiences of the people interviewed,b it some thought to how they can really access that when they live in poverty, struggle for basic needs would be wonderful. Cheers and thanks.

  3. It’d be great if there were transcripts. I’m deaf so I can’t hear it, but from the outline it sounds really inspirational.

  4. Hi Tim. Loving the expansion on podcast scope. I got a new layer of empathy for those who have made bad choices and are turning themselves around. These guys are inspirational for their stand in recreating themselves in some really tough circumstances and their commitment to improving others lives.

    I agree with your comment about the gold being in how do you recover from the mistakes. Thanks

  5. Really enjoyed podcast on Max Security prison. I was a prison doctor in NV for 30 years and stayed that long because I wanted to make a positive difference and protect them from abuses of power. Now in retirement I’m continuing on that path by sharing my stories and what I learned.

  6. Nice but note that Ms. Hoke was banned from Texas prisons in 2009 for sexual relationships with ex-prisoners in her program. Ironic that TIm and other tech elites are leaving San Francisco but transporting their dysfunctional idealogy to places in the flyover states that haven’t been ruined by it. This is another example of the liberal arrogance/hypocrisy that led to Trump’s election.

  7. Tim,

    You might want to check out the documentary The Work, if you are not familiar with it already. It is shot in Folsom Prison. The founder of the self-help group shown in the film (Rob Albee, Inner Circle Foundation) is someone I think you might find interesting. He struck me as someone very special.

  8. Thanks for this podcast, Tim.

    My favorite lesson was when the guys were talking about finding a purpose.

    One of my best friends is currently serving a 15-30 year sentence. We talk frequently about purpose and having a mission outside of yourself (in abbreviated 15 minute calls cause, you know, prison.) For him, it’s going from drug addict to helping other prisoners get fit and their mindset straight. His drive towards self-improvement also helped me get into lifting (repping out 195lb deadlifts 😃) and take more personal responsibility in my life on the outside. When I question whether he has the time help me build a lifting program or talk me through some shit, he reminds me that his motivation for getting up every day despite prison is positively impacting others. And it was cool to hear that sentiment echoed from your guests.

    Thanks for using your platform to talk about issues and to the people others would prefer to ignore.

  9. No man is an island as the old saying goes. That’s why this guys need second chances despite their failures.

  10. Tim, I just began listening to this podcast and the intro. Just as you pointed out, those that are incarcerated and the volunteers share many commonalities.

    Most of us have done a lot of the same things but did not get caught.

    If you would like to go to the Polunsky Prison in Livingston, Texas, we try to go once a month to visit the inmates. Would love to have you join us.

    Facebook page is AIM Polunsky.

    Thanks for all you do!

  11. BLOWN away by these men. Is there a way to write to them? I would love to reach out to Defy – I am a personal development coach (Psychologist) for organizations and would like to offer my services, possibly.

    1. The guys can be reached by email using JPAY.com. you would need to register for an account and fund email usage. The fee per email is around $0.33 per email. Snail mail is also an option. Thank you for your time and consideration.

      Jason S. Holland K24824

      Brad Menard AH8804

      Kern Valley State Prison C3 120

      P O Box 5103

      Delano, CA 93216

  12. Hi Tim, I found this to be one of the most powerful interviews you’ve prepared for us. Highly inspirational on so many levels. Well done on accepting that challenge and creating a truly worthwhile interview.

    1. Really enjoyed hearing these three men describe the journey they are on, working toward a healthier, productive, and positive life. So encouraging to hear that whether they are on the inside or out, they all plan to continue working to improve rehabilitation options. Thanks to Tim for taking the time to share their stories.

      One thing that stood out to me toward the end was the gentleman who mentioned that he was close to finishing master’s degree work but did not have the funding. Anyone familiar with crowd-sourcing and would want to help set up a page to collect funds? I have no experience with this but would like to see this guy complete his goal.

  13. Hey Guys, I just came across Lean Startup and I wonder did Tim adopt the Lean Startup Framework to his Selfexperiments, his thinking about failure and hacking everything? I spot similarities. Its about validating hypothesis, chunking problems into various subproblems, run experiments and fail when there is less at stake and then use the lessons for success/big projects like investing. He seemes to view the body like a startup. He What do you think?

  14. Loved the episode Tim. We all have made mistakes in life and, paraphrasing here, we aren’t our mistakes. The way and extent these guys have pivoted is awesome. I like the step out for you. I love the approach for the problem you’re trying to solve….

  15. Thank you for going outside normal boundaries of your format Tim. Very human stories in this podcast…

  16. This is the most important podcast you’ve ever done Tim. Despite loving all of your content, I would vouch that this podcast will have more impact than almost anything you’ve ever released. Success can be measured on so many levels. These guys are more successful than some of the millionaires you’ve interviewed. Thanks!

  17. Thanks for a wonderful episode. One of the best and most thought provoking episodes in a long time, in my opinion.

  18. Tim,

    As a recent but avid listener – only since the start of the year, but feels like I’ve listened to almost everything – I feel this is one of your best podcasts. So much humility and common humanity. I loved the comment from one of the guests about finally deciding he was not going to cut corners. Inspiring stuff.

    As a side note, thank you for pouring so much soul and effort into your show. I stumbled upon it via your interview with Mr Money Moustache and have been hooked since. I’ve made lots of little changes to my routine and while transformative is perhaps too strong a word, I’m very pleased with how my year has changed.

  19. My favorite part was Ian talking about how he deescalated the situation. When he said he thought maybe the other guy really was hungry and approached with that mindset it made me happy cry. Thank you for sharing these stories!

    1. Happy I made you happy cry? I hope you’ll be pleased to know he received the help he needed…and I made it out. I continue the good work.

      Much love.


  20. This was a very touching episode to listen to. I’ve since checked out Defy’s site and their page listing businesses from participants on the program. Geez, if these guys can do it with many odds against them, those of us in less challenging circumstances certainly can. Thank you for shedding light on this and for the earlier interview with Cat.

  21. Great interview. Devastating that two such articulate, self aware and caring humans can not take their contribution to the wider community because of their incarceration. Although, they have more purpose and meaning to their lives than the majority living outside of the walls.