Podcast Review: Unreformed
A difficult story about race and juvenile detention at the height of the Civil Rights movement
Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children is not for the squeamish.
The podcast concerns a "reform school" on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama - and the abuses that were committed there in the 1960s and early 70s. Originally founded by the daughter of an enslaved woman as a haven for African-American children, the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Youth (or "Mount Megis" as it is better known) slowly transformed into an emblem of the systemic racism endured by African-American children in the aftermath of the Jim Crow era.
Its first episode catalogs the abuses (psychological, physical, and sexual) endured by the children who ended up there with confrontational frankness, relying on intimate conversations with a handful of survivors. Mercifully, the podcast avoids wallowing in the details of their suffering, shifting instead to how they alerted the world to what they endured.
And their individual stories are fascinating. Consider Lonnie Holley, who is interviewed at great length. He ended up at Mount Megis after years of neglect from his family and guardians, culminating in a car accident that left him in a coma for weeks. Fast forward to 2023 and he is an accomplished musician and visual artist - with work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, six records on indie label Jagjaguar Records, and 15k followers on Instagram. Unreformed contrasts the hardships he suffered with the creativity that helped him work through its aftermath, both spiritually and psychologically.
The podcast is hosted by legal journalist Josie Duffy Rice, who brings an intimate understanding of our criminal justice system to the narrative. As the former president of The Appeal, a news website that examines the prison industrial complex, Rice excels at connecting the horrors of Mount Megis to the ways that African American children are mistrusted, abused, and criminalized in the present.
Unreformed requires a strong stomach, but its story will stick to your bones.