News Brief: Punishment and Production — Tough Love, Juvenile Justice and the New Investigative Series ‘Unreformed’

Citations Needed | January 18, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
29 min readJan 25, 2023


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes of Citations Needed, and we are so excited this time around to welcome back friend of the show, Josie Duffy Rice, to Citations Needed to talk about an amazing new podcast series that she created and is hosting “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.” It’s an investigative series and we are excited to talk about it. There are all sorts of thru lines that we talked about, there is media, there is race, there is corporatism and capitalism.

Adam: Yes, we did get a preview of this, producer of Citations Needed, Florence Barrau-Adams, is the script supervisor on the podcast. So we’re excited to have Josie on to talk about her collaboration with Florence and specifically this topic which intersects, as Nima mentioned, with a lot of stuff we’re talking about.

Nima: So without further ado, we welcome Josie Duffy Rice, friend of the show, back to Citations Needed. Josie is a journalist and writer whose work covers policing, prisons, and the criminal legal system, the creator and co-host of the Webby-nominated podcast “Justice in America,” Josie is now the creator and host of “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” a new eight part investigative limited series, the first episode of which drops today, Wednesday, January 18. Welcome Josie back to Citations Needed.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you guys for having me.

Nima: This new series, “Unreformed,” that Adam and I were lucky enough to get a little preview of before having you on, is really remarkable, and it really weaves together so many things that not only we talk about, but obviously, that you have been working on throughout your career, and you know, we know that this didn’t just come together in the past few weeks, this has been a long time coming. This has been a long production, and the result is truly fantastic. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it, and we’re just excited to have you on to talk about it today.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you so much. That’s so great to hear. I’m glad you guys liked it.

Adam: Yeah, there’s a ton of history, and I know that one thing people enjoy about our shows, we get into some of the deep history, and so there’s a lot of that there. To kind of start off with, I want to sort of talk about some broader themes, as we try to do in this show, our next episode coming out when we come back from break is about the war on drugs, and is about the kind of abstinence-only, tough love approach to drugs. So there is some thematic connection there with this idea that the central premise of reformation, or reform schools, and it’s a theme you touch on a lot, and it still exists today, in a slightly less harsh version of what you talk about in the ’50s and ’60s, but there’s this idea that tough love is an axiomatic good, that children who display quote-unquote “antisocial behavior” simply need to be denied affection, they need to be abused to some varying degrees, you know, they’ll stop short of torture, but they’ll hit whatever sort of the mores of the day are, and they need to be separated from their families, and the assumption is that you need to kind of like shock people out of their bad habits and bad ways, and this premise still informs much of our juvenile justice system, which we can maybe get into a little bit more later. But I want to talk about your show, “Unreformed: The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” the story of that, start off by talking about how it sort of began, and then how after, especially after it was taken over by the state of Alabama, how it became a center of torture and abuse, ostensibly for their own good, and how much of that still kind of lives with us.

(Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I mean, I think this is a really interesting part of the story that I started to realize once I began to look into it, which is, this institution began as like this almost too good a place for Black kids, right? People in the community were like, ‘We can’t send lawbreaking Negro juveniles to a place like this, they’ll be coddled,’ and they certainly weren’t coddled, even at the very beginning when it was run by this woman named Cordelia Bowen, who was a child of a former enslaved person and a Black woman and didn’t work for the state of Alabama, even when she owned it these kids were not coddled, right? They were, in fact, deprived of a lot of the things that children need to become full human beings, full, trusting, emotionally healthy, mentally healthy human beings. So even when it began, it wasn’t great, but it was the alternative where it was convict leasing, the alternative was sending this nine year old who got picked up for violating curfew to adult prison, and so because everything is relative, and we’re talking about the early 1900s, it was better than the alternative, right? But what you see over the next at least 60 years, and this institution is still open, so maybe much longer than that, is that it becomes a center of tough love in the worst possible ways, thinking that you are going to instill the fear of God in children and therefore fix them, and what we saw and what really drew me to the story was just how this specter of state violence from the beginning of these children’s lives followed them throughout their lives and ruin their lives. For most of the people who went to that school, it still at least haunts them if it didn’t literally change the trajectory of their entire lives. It’s a reminder, right, that the entire ethos of American discipline is based on this almost bootstraps-y, punishment-centric, deprive model that I don’t know how much more evidence we need that doesn’t work, and this is a good microcosm of that, certainly this school is.

Josie Duffy Rice

Nima: Yeah, one thing that I, you know, really want to talk about is the research that you did for this show. You know, as I kind of mentioned at the top, this didn’t happen overnight. So tell us a bit about the process of learning about the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in the first place, and then how you kind of built this story out, and what kind of surprised you along the way?

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it certainly was not a couple, not a couple hour process. We’ve been working on this for about 18 months now, and the reason I got interested in it is because I got an email in my inbox, and this was around the summer of 2021, and it was an email saying, ‘Look, we’re looking into the school, we’re looking into this institution, would you want to come on board on this project?’ What really pulled me in to this project was the part of the email that highlighted how many former students of this institution ended up on death row or serving life without parole, and the reason that was interesting to me, and by interesting, I mean, devastating and horrifying but also interesting, is because a lot of these kids went into this school for basically nothing, for breaking curfew, for shoplifting something, you know, a candy bar.

Nima: Yeah, like a stick of gum.

Adam: Yeah.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah a stick of gum, exactly. They didn’t go in because they were thought to be sociopathic children. They went in because they had quote-unquote, “broken a law,” laws that were made for Black people only essentially, and then they were, there was nowhere else to send them, right, this was the only place to send them. So the real research here is, obviously can’t really talk to anybody who was around for much of the history of the school, but we did get to talk to a lot of people who were there in the 1960s, which is a part we really focus on, and not only that, we really went back and tried to find all of the people that we could who were still in prison or died in prison and had gone to this institution. It’s worth noting that an Alabama School for Black kids, you can imagine that the state wasn’t keeping meticulous records, there isn’t really a place to go to find out every student that went to the school, it really is quite ad hoc of figuring out where people are, and as you won’t be surprised to hear, Alabama wasn’t particularly forthcoming with some of the information that they did have, and the reason that I think that’s relevant is because some of these other institutions that we’ve heard about in the past few years where mistreatment at these juvenile reform schools is not unique to this school. It’s happened in every state in the country and other countries as well. There have been attempts to kind of bring people together, bring survivors together, fight together for some sort of reparations or answer or apology, and it’s been hard to do that at Mount Meigs in particular, because this was a school for Black kids, and they just didn’t, you know, the record keeping was not top notch at all.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: So yeah, to that point, because I think one thing people don’t quite realize, because some people say okay, ‘Well, a lot of them went on to death row, it’s probably a sample bias because they’re in juvenile detention because they’re sort of hardened criminals by the age of seven,’ but we’re going to, there’s one newspaper clip here from the Wetumpka Herald that you passed along in your research from March 7 of 1946, quote:

“Records show that 25% of delinquents committed to the Alabama State Reform School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers at Mt. Meigs, came as a result of ‘laziness and loitering in the streets,’ according to the annual report.”

So this book very much parallels books like Slavery by Another Name by David Blackmon, right? This idea that you have a system where the mere existence of being Black and not having a lord or a master you’re tethered to at that very moment is itself a form of criminality, and that itself means you need to be put in a cage and shown what’s up. So once maybe you get out in two or three or four years and the first thing you do is you go seek plantation to work on or a coke mine to go work, and this kind of racial disciplining is sort of, as you detail, was so central to this idea. So I want to sort of talk about how children kind of get caught up in that mentality where it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re not going to become a state senator or a corporate CEO, we foreclose in your future, our job is to basically manage the surplus population.’ There’s been a long focus on this kind of scared straight approach to Black kids who are born into poverty, where they’re very over policed and under resourced for just this purpose. Many charter schools are kind of built around this premise. In fact, there was a 2013 walk out of a charter school because they basically said that our schools mimic prison, we have to line up on a piece of tape, you know, wear uniforms, we’re constantly being disciplined for the most minor infractions. The school-to-prison pipeline is something people hear a lot about, they’re basically in a form of incarceration from the time they enter the public education system, their expectations are kept at the bottom of the floor, and this kind of carceral system is seen as the result of moral failings on the part of poor people rather than something that is the natural or logical outgrowth of poverty.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

Adam: So if you could indulge me for a second, can we talk about how many of these racial disparities in relative terms haven’t actually changed much.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: If you can’t we talk about the sort of incarceration at a very, very young age, ways in which it has improved and then ways that maybe it hasn’t improved?

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, totally. I mean, I would say a couple things. The first is that it’s not even just that these were kids who had theoretically committed some wrong, some of them it was, to your point about surplus population, there just was nowhere else for them to go. Both their parents maybe had died, and Black kids couldn’t go to foster care then, right, they couldn’t, foster care and orphanages were often run by churches, churches weren’t required or willing to accept Black kids, and what it really meant was exactly what you said, this sort of deciding that there is no other path for these kids than criminality, and then literally funneling them into criminality, quite literally. What I hope that people really take away from listening to this is just how defined we are by what happens to us at these very key ages, and how the state either chooses to help us become what we can be, or prevent us from becoming what we can be. I mean, that’s what I really kind of took away from this. There’s almost a direct, there’s almost like, very few things are black and white, and this is one of those situations where it feels like such a clear delineation. For example, you look at how much money the state spends on my kids, and you look at how much, relatively, how much money the state spent on some of the people that we interviewed. We talked to people who are currently incarcerated, they went into Mount Meigs when they weren’t nine or ten, they’ve maybe not been incarcerated five years of their lives, since they went into Mount Meigs. I mean, they have spent their entire life as victim of state violence, and by the way, also inflicting some of that violence on others because of what they learned at these institutions, the state has not disposed of them, because the state is still paying for them in all the ways in which the state marks value, which mostly is monetary, this person is still on their dime, and yet, you can see how the state has ruined them. You can see how the entire presence of the racist, classist, and also, just regional American State has defined every contour of these people’s lives. There’s this thing that you always hear, ‘Kids are resilient,’ you hear all the time and the pandemic and I get why, and I don’t, I don’t know, I mean, kids are people, and some people are resilient, and some are less resilient, and they’re just as complicated as everybody else. But there’s this idea that you experience something like this, you never really get over it, but you move on, and what I really took from this is how many people do not move on. I mean, how many people, what happened to them from ages nine to thirteen, they never got to escape it. Now, it’s not just, it’s not all sadness. You talk to a lot of people who did move on and did get to build a life, right? But the bottom line of just the power of the state against these children is truly overwhelming,

Nima: And especially under the guise of reform.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

Nima: And yeah, I mean, you know, one thing I really want to talk about is this connection we see between Black punishment and Black production. How education is also linked to work, how labor and capitalism is infused consistently in this idea of juvenile detention as being intimately connected with not only reforming oneself, which is, you know, I mean, again, grotesque when considering how young so many of these kids were when they were effectively stolen from their lives and put into this facility, but then the idea of that they have to learn a work ethic and then produce for the state. So, to that point, coming back to some of the media surrounding Mount Meigs, which is, you know, the informal name for this institution, in your research, you also uncovered a number of news articles, you know, over the decades reporting about this reform school. So I just want to read two that cover a span of a couple decades and just have you comment on it.

This first one is from November 4, 1912, published in the Selma Times-Journal, and it is headlined, “900 Bushels, 30 Acres,” and the text reads like this, quote:

“The negro reform school at Mt. Meigs, Ala., has done a wonderful work this year. This is one of the state’s youngest wards, and it is a place where young Negro boys. criminally inclined, are sent for reformation. There they are taught how to work. They have competent leaders to show them how to work and they also have overseers and superintendents who insist on them working after they are shown how. What is the result?

“The report of the school, just issued, shows that they gathered nine hundred bushels of corn from thirty acres of land. That is not bad considering that fact it used to require about thirty acres to get one hundred bushels. The best thing that can be taught to the Negros of Alabama, is how to work, and to work the farms.”

End quote.

That’s from 1912. Then 20 years later, from March 1932 in the Birmingham News, there’s this, headlined, “A Place Of Plenty,” quote:

“‘On a recent visit to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro boys and girls, at Mt. Meigs, I found it to be in a prosperous condition and doing a surprisingly good work,’ said Miss Bess Adams, assistant county child welfare superintendent at Gadsden. ‘I was much interested in the smokehouse, which contains more than 5,000 pounds of home-raised meat and dozens of hams. I saw also several barrels of home-made lard, 2,000 cans of fruit and a lot of other food produced on the school farm, mostly by the 360 boys in the institution. I saw gorgeous pumpkins, much corn, peas, syrup and the like. In fact, all the school really has to buy is flour, sugar, salt and coffee. In addition there are 125 cows on the place and every child has at least one pint of milk a day. The children also have all the pecans they can eat.’”

End quote.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s shocking, right? The way that they talked about this school, and to your point, it is all about production. It is all about how much can the students at the school actually make. So I think there are a couple of things worth noting about this. The first is that this is the only way the school got funded. Other juvenile reformatories, there were two other ones in the state of Alabama, two other main ones, one for white boys and one for white girls, they had some state funding. I don’t want to make it sound like they were bastions of excellence, they were not, but they had many times the state funding that Mount Meigs had. That’s because the state kind of told Mount Meigs, ‘Look, if you want it, you got to work enough to make it, you have to work enough to fund it,’ and so that meant that the incentive to ever have these kids do anything but work was gone because they were trying to make enough money to keep the lights on essentially. But you know, the other part of this that I think is worth noting is just to your point about the media, the kind of human rights abuses happening at this institution that, when I say unimaginable, I feel like that word is thrown around a lot, and yet, that’s not what the media covers. The media literally covers how much these children can produce.

Nima: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: And what this meant was that by the 1960s, these kids, and mostly, I mean it was a coed school at this point, but I’m speaking specifically of the boys, were sent out into the fields and told they can come back when their sack weighs 100 pounds. They had to pick 100 pounds of cotton every day, and we kind of heard that number and we were like, well, that can’t possibly be right, that’s such a high number, right? Someone is just misremembering, but the number of different people that we heard that from, that is the number they were given — and why? — because people at the school are at fault for a lot of this, but the incentives are also at fault for a lot of this, right? A lot of this is the state of Alabama, a lot of this is capitalism.

Nima: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: Obviously, this is taken to an extreme, but this is kind of the logical end of how we value both kids, Black people and money in this country.

Nima: Well, yeah, because I mean, it’s just like a chain gang school. I mean, the idea is, you know, they’re not reporting on how many poems kids wrote, the incentive is purely industrial, or you know, agricultural, industrial. I mean, it literally is called, like the industrial school.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right, they’re not hiding it at all.

Nima: It’s right there. But I mean, when you realize that and then you think about these literal children, it is stark to realize that they would even call this a school.

Josie Duffy Rice: Totally, and they didn’t, I mean, you know, they really didn’t go to school. I mean, some people said they went a few hours a week, others said they didn’t go at all. There was no school happening here. It’s also worth noting that a lot of these kids, just by function of geography, were coming from relatively big cities, especially at the time, we’re talking about kids coming from Birmingham, coming from Mobile, coming from Montgomery, they are cities, especially relative to the rural areas of Alabama, and they really had no need to learn agricultural systems, they weren’t going to be farmers.That wasn’t their future, that wasn’t even their future if they ended up doing blue collar work in their community, that wasn’t their community, but in the minds of the state, Black people work in fields, and even if you’ve never been in a field in your life, you are built for this, you are meant for this, and this is what we can extract from you. This is how we extract value from you.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, to the point that this was not at all kind of hidden in a purpose of this, going back to that article that Adam referenced earlier, the Wetumpka Herald from March 1946, you know, one of the things that says in reporting on a report that was submitted by the superintendent to the governor of Alabama, it says this, quote:

“The report noted also that ‘most of our inmates when enrolled are undernourished, low spirited, and emaciated. In spite of these physical handicaps, they have been developed through proper nourishment, physical exercise, and medical treatment, into robust young men and women.”

End quote.

So remember, they’re even being referred to by the state as inmates constantly.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And look, there’s a couple of things worth noting here. One, the state had custody, essentially of these kids, right? I mean explicitly. Your kid gets arrested, at this point, this is a 1946 article, they’re not entitled to a lawyer when they go in front of a judge, if they go in front of a judge, they’re sent away to this institution, and maybe you hear from them, maybe you don’t. Maybe you see them again, maybe you don’t. We found articles saying kids had been there, you know, had been there since 11 and were still there at 25, and they just didn’t know they could leave. I mean, I think the other thing worth noting about that sentence, that it’s like, ‘When they come here, they’re emaciated, but then we make them into, you know, we nourish them.’

Nima: It’s like good workers. Yeah.

Josie Duffy Rice: Maybe that’s why they were shoplifting from the grocery store because they were emaciated. But you know, I think the other thing worth noting about that is it’s just a lie. They barely fed these kids. They went there and worked harder. But these are kids who were, I mean, eating food out of cow droppings because they had so little food, they were not going there and being even built to work. They were just being forced to work, right? They were not being invested in on any level, whether it’s picking cotton or being in a classroom, they were, again, deprived and forced to work 16 hours a day regardless.

Adam: I want to ask about the current state of incarcerating children. There’s about 50,000 minors currently incarcerated in this country. Recently, a six year old brought a gun to school and shot a teacher and there was a much maligned NPR headline that read quote, “A 6-year-old child shot his teacher at a Virginia elementary school on Friday, police say. Now authorities face the uncomfortable question, how should they prosecute a crime committed by a first grader?” Which elicited much outrage and incredulity for obvious reasons, which he is fucking six, you don’t prosecute a six year old.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: But this carceral impulse is strong in this country, as you know, demanding caging is the primary language that one expresses empathy and compassion, right? Because by definition, if I’m calling for some murderer to get life sentences versus you who’s calling for them to get 20 years, by definition, I care more than you and you’re a heartless monster. That’s how we articulate compassion. And this kind of warped Puritan logic, moralism, it’s obviously problematic in every context, but it begins to really kind of break down when we talk about how to kind of quote-unquote “punish children,” because we sort of routinely understand they have diminished mental capacity, right/wrong decisions, all that kind of impulse control, all that fun stuff. So if you can, I want to kind of talk about the current state of incarceration for children. I know with The Appeal and Justice Collaborative this was something that you had worked on and talked about. Obviously, it’s improved from these sort of avert slave conditions, but I think there are many similarities that maybe would make our listeners somewhat uncomfortable. Can we talk about what’s improved and what is not improved with a sort of broader picture about incarceration of children, especially in places like Alabama?

Josie Duffy Rice: Sure. I mean, I think on some level it has improved, to your point, there are still 50,000 Kids incarcerated, and by the way there are 10,000 of those kids are incarcerated in adult facilities. I mean, I was at a prison last, I guess, Spring and was speaking to three kids incarcerated in an adult prison and Tennessee. Things have changed, but they actually haven’t changed as much as one would imagine, and I think that is reflective of a couple things. One is a lack of imagination, and I think that’s really clear in what the response was to this story about the six year old and I think about the story about the six year old and I think also about the school shooting story that happened a few months ago of the boy who took a gun to school and his parents — do remember this? — his parents knew he, I think it was in Wisconsin, his parents knew he had a gun, and they had bought him a gun, and he had expressed anger and dislike and the tone was this was predictable and the parents should have avoided it. It’s not that I think that that’s wrong, it’s that I think that that is incompatible with our American fetishization of violence and guns, and that we have created a system where we believe that the methods of harm should be available to everybody, and then we are surprised when children are capable of harm, and then our response to that is to punish them like adults. One of the ways that that really still happens, right, is that kids being sentenced to life without parole. It happens that people are sentenced to life without parole, they will never leave prison for a crime they committed as a child.

Adam: And to be clear that the US is unique in that. We’re the only country that has felony murder, but also puts people in prison for life as juveniles. Just to clarify, that’s not normal.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. That’s not normal. And it’s worth noting that, look, here, I live in Atlanta, and one thing I noticed during the pandemic, when the number of murders was increasing, was that a lot of the people committing, you know, arrested for those murders and accused of those murders were kids, they were 15 to 17 years old, and what I take from that is not that we’re not putting kids away for long enough, right? It’s that we are not taking care of children. We do not take care of children. We do not make it possible for kids to be kids, not just post sentencing, but pre sentencing, right? I mean, it’s truly not uncommon to see 17, 18 year olds sentenced to decades in prison, if not life without parole, and it really underscores the ways in which we’re willing to treat the most vulnerable among us. I mean, the truth is that, and someone says this on the podcast, kids don’t vote. They’re at the total mercy of policymakers and policymakers think of kids as a symbol, as a talking point very often, rather than vulnerable people who need help, and who are capable of so many things along the spectrum of good to bad, just like all of us, and I think that, look, Mount Meigs is still open. So the idea of whether or not it’s changed enough, I would argue, it almost hasn’t changed at all. Some parts of it have changed. You can’t have a school just for Black kids anymore in Alabama, but when I drove by Mount Meigs, I can tell you that the only people I saw there were Black kids, and so I don’t know how much it’s actually changed.

Adam: Yeah, there’s a de facto du jour thing here. What percentage of Mount Meigs is Black?

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean —

Adam: I mean, what? 90 percent?

Josie Duffy Rice: I have, I mean, here’s the other thing, and back to the media point, I know less about Mount Meigs today then I do about Mount Meigs in 1970. There was more media and that reporting wasn’t great. But it existed. And I think this kind of gets back to something I’ve thought about a lot in the past couple of years, is it better to have a lot of bad media or no media? And I’m not sure because a lot of the coverage of Mount Meigs was just terrible. I mean, like nobody was really doing their job. But without that coverage, I’d have a much less clear picture of what was happening at the time. I mean, at least, there was infrastructure for telling some of these stories. I don’t know what the journalism landscape looks like in Montgomery right now but I’m assuming that it looks like it does in a lot of places across America, almost empty, or not what it once was, and it’s just a reminder, I mean, it’s sort of shocking to think about how little I know about this institution after looking at it for a year and a half. What a black box it is for me today, this moment, I don’t know what’s happening there, and I don’t know how I would even begin to kind of find out.

Nima: Right. It’s actually kind of fascinating that, you know, we read these horrifying clips from news articles from all these little local papers, but there are local papers.

Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly.

Nima: And now, there are no local papers or, I mean, you know, obviously fewer and fewer because of consolidation, because of closing, because of no one can sustain this, and there’s no local reporting infrastructure in most of the country at this point, and so the idea that, yes, maybe you’re getting, or almost definitely getting a certain kind of perspective in the reporting, but at least you can try and suss that out because it exists. But if there is nothing, if it’s just completely disappeared behind these iron gates, whether it’s in a state house or a state correctional facility or an industrial school for negro children, you can’t even read between the lines because there are no lines.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right, and you know, this goes back to something, I did a story last year in Tennessee, I talked to a local reporter he’d been working there, maybe, I think 40 years at that point, and one of the things she said, I’ve thought about it everyday sense, which was just about norms. Basically, it used to be that you went to the police precinct and there was a reporter there, maybe the reporter was way too close to the cops, maybe it’s still copaganda, maybe they’re just sort of taking the cops at their word, but there is names and a record and something to account for an event happening, and I think that’s sort of the truth of how things were at Mount Meigs. I don’t have a very clear picture of the local media landscape today in Montgomery so some of what I’m saying is assumption because it’s what I’ve seen so many other places, right? But, you don’t have the relationships, you don’t know who to call, you get a tip, and not only do you not have the time or the capacity to investigate it, it’s hard when you don’t even know where to start, because part of what journalism is, is having your pulse on the people and power across a region, and you can’t do that with five reporters covering everything, right? You need to actually be able to have your body somewhere, have someone expect you, have someone expect accountability in a way that doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, I can’t tell you all, and Florence knows this, how hard we tried to get into Mount Meigs to do a tour to get other people who had actually gone there, students to get in, to get a former probation officer in. We couldn’t do it, and there’s no reason that they would let us in, there’s no, there’s no incentive for them to be open. Zero. And so there’s no accountability, and even in the days when, I’m not excusing terrible journalism, because I mean, that presents its own problems, don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to know the counterfactual. But I do think we underestimate the absolute terror to human rights and democracy that is the absence of any local accountability whatsoever. I mean, you guys don’t underestimate it. But the general world.

Adam: Yeah, it’s the timeless question which is worse? No journalism or bad journalism? Sometimes it’s hard to say.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

Adam: So your podcast “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” which can be found at find your podcast stories everywhere, today, January 18. So if you’re listening to this, and you want to listen to it, you can go listen to it after this, releasing every Wednesday, which is sort of a citation, so you know, prioritize.

Josie Duffy Rice: Doing both.

Adam: I want to leave with a question that is maybe not so bleak. I think this is pretty typical on the show, and has been quite depressing. But your story is not bleak. Your show is deliberately not about that; it is very much a story of hope, as well. It’s specifically, you tell the tales of people who did kind of come out the other end, whose perseverance and humanity kind of broke through the opacity that you talk about, and they tell their stories, and those stories inform their art, their faith, their families, the families that they raise, and presumably, trying not to visit the horrors that are visited upon them, and you’re talking to some of these elders, for want of a better term, who’ve lived through these things. What do you think are some lessons in 2023 that activist lawyers, incarcerated people can kind of take away from their experience to try to change this system, this punitive system that you work so hard to undo?

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. Well, first, I want to say thank you for pointing out that it’s not just depressing, because it isn’t just depressing. It’s important. I don’t like sad movies. I don’t like stuff that’s too sad, the world is very sad right now, I want people to be able to listen to this, and there are definitely sad moments, but you know, I think the end is hopeful, and part of the reason the end is hopeful is because of something that I’m particularly interested in, just as a as a human faculty, right, which is the capacity for forgiveness. What really I find just mind blowing about so many people that we talked to, the team talked to, was that many of these people are in their 70s now, and they think to themselves like ‘Well, I wonder what had to have happened to the people who did this to us, for them to inflict this level of harm,’ and I think that, to me, gives me a lot of hope because I think there’s a lot that’s hopeful here, right? Many of these people are doing the best that they can. One is a world renowned artist. Others have done stuff like adopted children, foster children, so that they don’t end up at the same place. People have made a way out of no way the way that especially Black people in America have been doing for generations, but really the level of forgiveness that people expressed to us for this abject, immeasurable harm that they endured, gives me hope for the human condition, because it is a reminder that there is a certain vulnerability and promise and in our ability to have empathy and kindness and understanding even of the worst parts of us, and I don’t know that I could do the same thing but that’s really what I took away from this. It’s really easy to kind of source this back to one bad guy or ten bad people or a hundred bad people, but the levels of harm that other people endured, especially I think, the Black people at this institution who worked there, who also inflicted a ton of harm, what they must have known, what they must have seen, it’s hard to imagine too, and so I’m interested in mercy and forgiveness as just conceptually, but I think that in particular has stuck with me, and I think it’s the most beautiful part of what I learned from the people that we talked to.

Nima: Yeah, I found that really remarkable about the series, Josie, you know, the idea that yes, it’s about a school that allegedly exists for reformation, and yet it is, you know, not a place of forgiveness and mercy but the survivors of it instill so much of that forgiveness and mercy and truth and trust and solidarity and, you know, throughout this series, you know, in your storytelling you just consistently subvert and surprise a listener, you know, assumptions are challenged, and, yes, you’re kind of recounting, of course, the horrors committed, but it also is fundamentally a story of resistance and strength. So, excited to have spoken to you today and I really do hope that listeners of Citations Needed will also listen to “Unreformed,” all eight episodes, the first of which has dropped today, that is Wednesday, January 18. If you’re listening to this, either today, Wednesday, January 18, or any day after that, you can listen to this new series. New episodes are going to be released every Wednesday for the next seven weeks. All that is left to do is thank you, our guest today and friend of the show, Josie Duffy Rice, journalist, writer whose work covers policing, prisons, and the criminal legal system, creator and co-host of the Webby nominated podcast “Justice in America.” Josie is now the creator and host of “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” a new eight part investigative limited podcast series, the first episode of which, as we’ve been saying, dropped today, January 18. Thank you so much Josie, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you. I am also, you forgot a very key part of my title, I am Citations Needed’s biggest number one fan.

Adam: Thank you.

Josie Duffy Rice: Okay.

Adam: You always get invited back on with flattery. We’re very venal.

Nima: We are very susceptible.

Josie Duffy Rice: Listen, I’m being dead serious.

Adam: Appreciate it.

Josie Duffy Rice: Dead serious, you know, it’s my favorite and I’m really grateful for you all having me on here anytime. I don’t really leave my house. Anytime you guys want to hang out I’m here.

Nima: Unless you’re trying to get into a gated school for children.

Josie Duffy Rice: I told you I couldn’t get into a gated place.

Nima: Thank you so much. That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course you can catch the show regularly coming out on Wednesdays, we’re going to be back very soon with more full length episodes. So stay tuned for those. Of course in the meantime you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. But until next time, thank you so much for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, January 18, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.