Seeking clarity for our own small contribution to pandemic-era reporting, on Monday, April 5, 2020, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program intern Kate Cammell asked Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal and co-host of the Justice In America podcast, for some advice. What is journalism’s role in this historical moment? What criminal justice news items should we be looking for? And, needing it ourselves, how might we stay sane in the process of staying informed?


KATE CAMMELL: The news is playing an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s keeping us informed, holding power to account and creating an expansive archive of global tragedies and victories. 

But it can also feel overwhelming. 

As our understanding of the virus emerges, and policy adjusts in response, what we know changes, often dramatically, hour-to-hour—and sometimes, minute-to-minute. 

In her role as president of the criminal justice focused news organization The Appeal, and as co-host of the podcast, “Justice in America” with Clint Smith, Josie Duffy Rice understands the impact of news better than most. 

Seeking clarity for our own small contribution to pandemic-era reporting, I asked Josie for some advice. What is journalism’s role in this historical moment? What criminal justice news items should we be looking for? And, needing it myself, how can we stay sane in the process?

I’m Kate Cammell, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program intern and you’re listening to our new rapid response series, Temperature Check, COVID-19 behind Bars.

CAMMELL: Josie, thank you so much for talking with us, today.

JOSIE DUFFY RICE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

CAMMELL: You’re both a lawyer and a journalist. I’m curious about what led you to focus on criminal justice work? Can you tell listeners a bit about The Appeal and your path to becoming president of the publication?

RICE: Sure. So, I became a lawyer because of criminal justice work. I worked for the public defender in the Bronx right after I left college about 10 years ago. And that was a really life-changing experience for me and led me to go to law school. In law school, I did a lot of freelance writing, and discovered that I liked writing more than I liked lawyering. So I’ve, over time, since I graduated from law school, I’ve had jobs doing criminal justice work and basically, in a lot of different ways from like policy and activism to kind of changing, switching towards journalism and eventually becoming president of The Appeal

I joined the Justice Collaborative, which is the umbrella organization that The Appeal lives under, about three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of different work for them over that time, and about 10 months ago, got named president of The Appeal, and I’ve been writing for The Appeal since it started, which was about two years ago. So it’s been a really incredible experience, and I love working at The Appeal. We have such a great team, and I’m really honored to be part of it.

CAMMELL: In this moment of pandemic upheaval, it seems many are both grateful for, and overwhelmed by, the news cycle. Some might be at a loss about where to begin, or how to stay up-to-date. You have quite a bit of experience parsing through the news to decide which stories are important. What are the most pressing issues being reported on at the intersection of COVID-19 and the criminal justice system?

RICE: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s an interesting question. What we know about the coronavirus, right, is that it’s, like, highly contagious. And that when we think about the criminal justice system, we don’t often realize that the people in it can impact the people out of it. What we know right now is that it’s spreading pretty rapidly in institutions and correctional institutions across the country—in jails, prisons, immigration detention centers.

And what that, really, I mean, just on a human rights level, that’s very, very concerning. The fact that people who are basically trapped in a cell are getting a contagious virus and cannot socially distance, cannot do anything to protect themselves. 

But then the other part of this is that, like, we, you know, people who are in prisons and jails eventually get out, right? In jails across the country, people are released daily. Thousands of people are released daily. There are people who work in these institutions who go home to their families. And so when we think about it spreading—when it spreads inside a correctional institution and it spreads inside of a jail or a present, that has implications for everybody outside of it as well, right?

If someone, you know, a prison guard gets it and goes home to their family, they’re spreading it to their family who may spread it to other people. If someone who is actually serving time gets it and, and gets out there, they also are spreading it. So beyond the implications that has for people inside of these institutions, it also has pretty significant implications for those outside. And I think that’s a pretty pressing issue. 

I would say the other issues that you know, we’re focused on right now is just driving home the inhumanity of these systems and how a pandemic really puts that on display. When you talk about the fact that we have a virus that has killed upwards of 10,000 people in our country so far, you know that where the rate is higher in New York City than it is anywhere else. And the rate in Rikers Island is 10 times higher than it is in New York City. People in jail and prison—and those in jails, many of whom have not even been convicted of a crime yet—are, are paying the ultimate price in a way that they kind of consistently have throughout this era of mass incarceration.

And it really brings to head the fact that these systems are fundamentally inhumane, that they don’t have this sort of health care and human rights protections that they should, and what that means in a time of mass illness, like the one that we’re currently living in.

CAMMELL: I’m hoping you might be willing to offer listeners a bit of the behind-the-curtains process. I’m curious what it’s been like to pivot your publication in response to COVID-19. I can imagine that with prison lockdowns affecting access to communication systems, you have found it more challenging to get in touch with sources on the inside, as one example. Can you tell us what a digital newsroom looks like in the time of coronavirus?

RICE: Sure. So I should say we have just an unbelievable editor-in-chief. His name is Matt Ferner. I mean, I just couldn’t ask for any better sort of partner in this process. He did an incredible job kind of preparing our staff to pivot to COVID-19, and has really done a great job of centering the coverage around the issues that really matter.

We also just have, I mean, I can’t say enough good things about our staff, from the writers who have stepped up just unbelievably, and pivoted to a topic that like they didn’t know that much about, and nobody knew that much about, and are covering it with the sort of dexterity that, you know, it’s sometimes just unbelievable how great it is. And then we have incredible editors. We have an incredible copywriting staff. We have incredible fact-checkers. You just have a staff that has really met the moment. And so, I mean, the first thing that any digital newsroom needs, right, is good people. And we’ve been blessed beyond belief to have an incredible, incredible team. 

And then beyond that, like it absolutely has kind of changed the way that we cover stories, and that systems are shut down, people can’t go outside and report, right? Everybody’s kind of priorities have shifted. Sometimes it’s harder to actually reach the people that you need to reach. Sometimes getting inside sources, like you said, is virtually impossible. And I think the number of stories that are possible to come out of something like this are so numerous, because this disease is spreading, this virus is spreading, and prisons and jails, again, everywhere across the country, right? 

And so, we’ve relied a lot on our incredible freelancers, also, who have like, you know, find kind of stories on their own and pitch them to us. And we are building a sort of new base of sources that’s not just people who are experts on criminal justice, right? But on housing, on healthcare, on the general concern of a shared vulnerability that we’re all experiencing right now.

We recognize that in a moment like this, when there’s a pandemic spreading across the country, that two things are true and they both seem kind of, they seem opposite of each other, right? But they both sort of exist. One is that we’re all at risk right now. There’s nobody who can’t catch this virus or, or knows exactly what’s going to happen to them when they catch this virus; no age is immune. Even though obviously the younger you are, the better chance of having a mild reaction. And everybody is sort of uncertain and having to follow these new social guidelines in order to keep us all safe. 

And so there is this sense of shared vulnerability. And there’s also this sense that, at the same time, this pandemic highlights the inequality that exists—that already exists—through our country class: inequality, race inequality, you know, access inequality, right? Like people who actually can afford to go to the doctor, and people who can’t. Or people who can have the opportunity of working from home, and people who don’t. And we find it critical to kind of tell those stories, as well. This moment has required us to kind of expand beyond criminal justice, and also into other societal issues that highlight the harms that exist in a time like this.

CAMMELL: As listeners are consuming the news, perhaps a good question to have in the back of their minds would be, what can Americans learn from this moment in regards to criminal justice reform that can carry out beyond the pandemic timeframe? 

RICE: So I would say that there’s so much you can learn from this moment, right? In terms of criminal justice, there really is so much, and one of them is that you can see for yourself just how callous people in leadership positions—everyone from governors to prison system officials to the president—are when it comes to addressing the possible infection of people serving time, of incarcerated individuals. This is a real, constant reality in our system. But I mean, I don’t know the last time it was this on-display. We see that they just very often don’t really care about what happens to the people in jails and prisons. And again, many of these people have not even been convicted of a crime. Not that I think being convicted of a crime means that the government should treat you with total disregard. But you know, any of us could be arrested tomorrow and not be convicted of something, and really experience this total, you know, callousness that the government has towards people who are incarcerated.

So that, I think, would be the first thing. I think the second thing is when you don’t have a strong safety net. And this goes again beyond criminal justice—but I think it’s especially apparent here—when you don’t have a strong safety net, when you’re not creating environments for people where they can be at least healthy, this is going to harm those communities so much more. And we see that in a place like Rikers Island where the rate of infection is 10 times what it is outside of the jail, you know, in New York City. It really highlights sort of every kind of inequality, in every kind of issue that we’ve discussed, and that we’ve highlighted over the past couple of years at the appeal, and that I’ve been focused on for the past decade. 

And then I would say the last thing is like, what we’re seeing in some places is that people are being released. Not enough, and not as quickly as we would like, but in some states, you know, a thousand, 1500, maybe even more incarcerated individuals have been released because of what’s going on in prison and jails, in terms of the infection. And we’re not seeing a rapid crime increase or anything, right? We’re not seeing really a crime increase, at all. We’re not seeing these people who we are convinced need to be locked up because of “public safety,” quote/unquote, actually have an impact on public safety.

What that tells us—and at the same time, I should say we see a lot of law enforcement unable to work because they’ve been infected. I think it’s something like, a third of the NYPD has called out sick now, and those are people actually on the streets. And again, crime isn’t going up, right.

What it tells us is that our criminal justice system is too big. If you can let out a lot of people and that these like fears that exist, that these people will go out and commit all these other crimes because they’re not, you know, in a, whatever, four by six cell or, you know, whatever it may be—those are unfounded fears. We actually have a too-big system and we can see it pretty clearly because we’re trying to kind of rapidly, or some places are kind of trying to more rapidly shrink it than they would have otherwise, and there has been no impact, no negative impact of that.

CAMMELL: In your opinion, what can readers or listeners of the news do if they’re moved to get involved in advocacy at this time? What are some ways people on the outside can support efforts to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated communities?

RICE: So the number one thing that you can do is contact your leaders, whether that’s your mayor, your prison system officials in the state, your local D.A., your local sheriff or chief of police, the governor. And the president, right? And maybe your local congress people, depending on what’s going on in your city, town and state. You can ask them to make sure they’re testing in prisons and jails, to inform the community about what that testing looks like, to release numbers of people from prison in jail, and not just one or two people, and not just 10 or 15, but to the extent possible, thousands of people, to make sure that we’re not basically sentencing people to death by sentencing them to any time in prison, in jail. And that’s the real risk here, right.

And so you can advocate for mass release, just from home, just by reaching out to your elected officials, and demanding that they really address this problem. And really, if people don’t reach out, it’s very unlikely it happens. And so it requires the work of everybody, you know, who is just listening, or maybe doesn’t know that much about that issue and wants to do something, or cares to actually make those calls to see any level of change.

And then the other thing you can do is stay informed to the extent possible. So make sure that you are demanding that your local news cover this issue at the local prisons or jails, wherever you may live. That you’re remembering to kind of, well, look at who’s suffering in our correctional facilities, as much as we look at who’s suffering outside of them.

CAMMELL: And finally, as someone who lives and breathes the news, I’d love to learn about how you balance staying informed with self care. Can you share any advice on how to navigate the privilege and desire to consume news, without letting the gravity and abundance overwhelm us?

RICE: I wish I could provide some good advice. And the truth is that I really, I can’t. I am reading too much news. I’m online too much. I’m letting this impact sort of my day to day in a way that probably is too much. And I have a toddler at home, I’m having another baby in September, and so that like added level of responsibility makes this a particularly stressful time. Obviously, I’m not going through what, you know, many, many people are going through, but I think we’re all sort of experiencing this like, collective, like mass anxiety. Right? And I don’t know how good it is for any of our long term health.

I will say that there is something terrifying, and almost, calming about the fact that there is not much more I can do, right? Like, I can stay home, I can demand policy change, but I am not writing the laws. I’m not signing the laws. I’m not, I can’t, help what everybody else does. And recognizing the limited ability to control something like a global pandemic is probably a lesson that in many ways is actually helping me, despite the fact that it’s also making me more stressed out.

And I watch a lot of, currently, I watch a lot of Disney movies. My two-year-old is very into The Muppets. He’s very into The Lion King. And that always is a good way to see major moments of stress that end up okay. 

So I’m trying to remember that this is not forever. And that one day, I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to what we were before, but it’s an opportunity for kind of a new change to some of the systems that exist in this country, to a new consideration of wealth inequality, racial inequality, class inequality that existed in America. And a chance for us to change something in a moment that is so drastic and so scary.

So that’s my optimistic thought that I deeply believe that there’s going to be so much loss in this moment, and an opportunity for a new, a kind of a new beginning at the same time.

CAMMELL: Josie, thank you so much for talking and sharing your time with us in this critical moment.

RICE: Thank you so much. I’m really happy that you guys are putting this together, and I’m happy for all of your work.

CAMMELL: To stay up-to-date on news about COVID-19’s effect on incarcerated communities, visit This episode was mixed by Robert Pollock with support from Elizabeth Fiore, researched and hosted by myself, Kate Cammell and produced by Caits Meissner for PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. Thanks for listening to Temperature Check.