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‘Unreformed’ podcast tells the largely untold story of an abusive Alabama reform school

In this archive photo, a child does laundry at Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in 1969.
Photo courtesy of Matt Arnett
In this archive photo, a child does laundry at Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in 1969. Adults who went to the school said they were abused by the state during their time there and even referred to it as a “slave camp” during interviews for the “Unreformed” podcast.

When journalist Josie Duffy Rice received an email from artist and musician Lonnie Holley, she assumed it would be about his work. Instead, it was about his time at a prison for children.

The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, now known as Mt. Meigs, was created over 100 years ago with the aim of rehabilitating Black children that got in trouble with the law. But that’s not what happened. The children who went there were abused by the state and even referred to it as a “slave camp.”

A new podcast, “Unreformed: the Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children,” is telling the largely untold story of what really happened at Mt. Meigs and how Alabama’s criminal legal system allowed it to happen.

Duffy Rice is the host of the podcast. She spoke with the Gulf States Newsroom’s Bobbi-Jeanne Misick about why the story of these children is even more relevant today.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A promotional photo of “Unreformed” host Josie Duffy Rice. Before working on the podcast, Duffy Rice said she’d never heard of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.
Photo courtesy of Josie Duffy Rice
A promotional photo of “Unreformed” host Josie Duffy Rice. Before working on the podcast, Duffy Rice said she’d never heard of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.

I want to start at the beginning because the story of how this came to you is really interesting. Your curiosity about the school started with an email, right?

Yes. I got an email in the summer of 2021 asking if I would want to be part of a project about this school in Alabama. I had never heard of the school and that sort of surprised me. But there was a lot that I thought was really interesting, including that this famous artist, Lonnie Holley, had gone to this institution. And the other thing I thought was really interesting in this email was the fact that the repercussions from what happened at the school were continuing today. And so, that’s sort of what piqued my interest.

I wanted to talk about the origin of this school. Mt. Meigs started with good intentions, it seems. It was started by the daughter of an enslaved woman who meant for it to be a place to rehabilitate Black children who had gotten in trouble with the law. When did things change for the worse?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. It started as kind of an alternative place for kids who were in trouble to go, because otherwise, they were just going to adult prison. And this is in the convict leasing era. The impact of adult prison, even now is horrible, but back then was deadly, really. And so, it existed in its kind of better form, at least for the first four years, from 1907 to 1911. And in 1911, it was sold to the state of Alabama. And that’s when the goals of the school and the environment really started to shift. It didn’t all happen overnight, but I would certainly say that is kind of the crucial moment that this school went from having good intentions to being just a house of horrors, essentially.

House of horrors. Wow. For you, what was the significance of this origin story of being this rehabilitative place versus what it became like? What stuck out with you about that?

I cover criminal justice. I work in criminal justice, and that’s really where my career has been. And I’ve always been sort of interested in how we treat children who have been accused of harm. And so, this school did on the early side have pretty laudable goals. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect institution, but it had some of the goals that we would want our system to have today. That, to me, was a very interesting element of the story because it becomes very clear that once the state takes over, and once the idea of punishment versus rehabilitation is on the table, the state takes the punishment angle every time. And that is a trend that we see today. It was much more explicit. It took a few different forms, I think, of what the state did to Mt. Meigs when they took over. But, in 112 years since then, we are seeing some of the same patterns even now in how we think about juvenile justice.

It’s such a tragic story and this school is right outside of Montgomery. You grew up in the South and you’d never heard of this school. And I imagine that’s true for a lot of people. How do you think this story has played under the radar?

That’s a great question. I think there are a couple of reasons. The first one is there are a lot of institutions like this. Not exactly like this — Mt. Meigs was particularly horrible in some unique ways — but we have a history in this country of shipping kids off to, quote-unquote, reformatories that are essentially prisons. We have a history in this country of using state power to punish kids and do the opposite of rehabilitating them. So in some ways, I think it stayed under the radar because there are other places like this. It’s not the only one. I think another reason it stayed under the radar is because it was and, I think, continues to primarily be an institution for Black kids. And that meant that the ability to share these stories and have people listen or care has historically been pretty limited. When we started talking to people who went to Mt. Meigs, many of them had never even told their families about what they had experienced — their kids, their spouses. They had never really talked openly about it. And not only that, they had never gotten an apology. They had never heard back from the state. They had never even had an acknowledgment of what they went through. And they still haven’t from the state of Alabama.

“Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children” is an 8-part investigative series podcast hosted by journalist Josie Duffy Rice for School of Humans and iHeartPodcasts. It debuted in January.
Photo courtesy of iHeartPodcasts
“Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children” is an 8-part investigative series podcast hosted by journalist Josie Duffy Rice for School of Humans and iHeartPodcasts. It debuted in January.

In the podcast, we heard from adults who were held at the school and so many of them are still carrying scars from that experience. How did their time there impact their lives as adults?

It impacted it in various ways, but I would say every single person we talked to or heard about was drastically, severely impacted by what they went through. I mean, without exception. Some people like Jenny and Lonnie, whose voices you just heard, they went on to kind of live normal lives. I mean, Lonnie’s life is not normal. He’s a world-renowned artist. But they kind of ostensibly moved past Mt. Meigs. In other words, they didn’t end up back in prison. They didn’t outwardly pay the price for this institution, but internally they did. They have extreme, extreme trauma from their experience. Jenny, recalling memories of 50 years ago, was crying during her interview. Lonnie teared up talking about it. These are people who are almost elderly now and this has haunted them for decades. It has defined their lives and it has shaped their lives in so many ways. I think not a single of which is positive.

As you say in the podcast, you, as a reporter, are usually focused on the present and issues with criminal justice today. But this history definitely has parallels to what we’re seeing now and the types of things I’m covering with juvenile justice in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — What are some of the things that come to mind for you?

Yeah, I mean, look, this is a country that is built on and has a long, unending, relentless history of punishment, and of cruelty and of state brutality. So on that level, I would say this is a modern-day story, right? This is reminiscent of some of the same dynamics that exist today. I think an important thing to keep in mind, also, is Mount Meigs is still open. The institution, I think, has changed a lot in the past 50 years, for example. But I don’t think it’s changed entirely. We talked to people who have clients there more recently and they still see it as a place that does the opposite of rehabilitation.

We’ve listened to the first couple of episodes of this podcast and you’ve described pretty well in this interview the trauma that these folks have endured. For people who are just starting to listen to it, can you talk about the narrative arc a little? Is there some hope in this story? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

What I take away from this podcast, it’s not a feeling of ‘Oh there’s no hope because look at what these kids went through.’ It’s the opposite. It’s a feeling of these kids went through something really horrific and they have now, as adults, taken the opposite lesson from that. The pain that they went through is part of the reason that they’ve tried to show kindness, empathy and care to others and it’s just a reminder that there’s potential beyond just the worst, right? There is a sense of people surviving. These are survivors.

Josie Duffy Rice is the host of the iHeartRadio podcast, Unreformed: the Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.