Liliana Segura was a Nation intern in 2005 who subsequently worked at The Nation Institute for two and a half years and is now an Associate Editor at the Nation; Segura frequently writes on prisons and harsh sentencing. In this interview, Summer 2012 Nation intern Zoë Schlanger asks Liliana about her time as a Nation intern and her passion for covering the criminal justice system.
1. You quit your publishing job and applied for a Nation internship, which I imagine must have been somewhat scary. Clearly, it worked out well. But what made you do it?
It was 2004. George W. Bush had just been (re)elected. I think it made me half crazy. The day Kerry conceded, my coworker and I left the office and cried into our beers. After marching against the invasion of Iraq and reading in horror about the torture at Abu Ghraib, I just couldn't spend another second at a place where pushing back against injustice and abuse of power wasn't part of the institutional mission. I knew I wanted to be in journalism and had had my eye on the internship for awhile. So I thought, no time like the present!
2. What was it like to come back as an editor after having been an intern here?
Surreal! And thrilling. I felt like I'd won the journalism job lottery. Suddenly the editors I was so shy around as an intern were my colleagues. I still feel pretty junior sometimes on that front. So I try to learn from other editors. And I try to invest in the interns and make myself available when they want advice, since I remember very well what it was like to be one myself.
3. What do you like most about editing and was it something you always saw yourself doing?
I always saw myself as a writer first, so it came as a bit of a surprise that I enjoyed editing as much as I do. At AlterNet, where I worked before this, a story I assigned and edited helped get an innocent man out of prison, which was perhaps the most proud I've ever been as an editor — to see that level of real-life impact stemming from a decision I made as part of my job was epic and awe-inspiring.
But in general, when I'm really invested and have worked really hard on a story, it's just tremendously rewarding to see the finished product and know that I saw it through. And I LOVE it when I can solicit stories from journalists and writers whose work I have read and admired for years. I am doing that constantly.
4. How did harsh sentencing become your specialty? Are there other topics you'd like to investigate?
I was radicalized in college by the Chicago Police Department's history of torturing scores of African American suspects between the '70s and '90s — a scandal I learned about through the CEDP [Campaign to End the Death Penalty]. Under Police Commander Jon Burge, well over 100 men have described how they were subjected to brutal interrogation tactics: beating, suffocation, Russian Roulette, mock executions and, most sickening, electroshocks: men were electrocuted all over their bodies, including on their genitals. No one was ever held accountable. (Burge got 4.5 years in federal prison, where he still collects his police pension.) When I first found out that this had happened, the injustice was so overwhelming, I couldn't wrap my head around it. The story of Madison Hobley was particularly appalling: He was tortured into giving a false confession claiming he set fire to his own apartment building. That fire killed his wife and young child. He was sentenced to die and spent 16 years facing execution before he was ultimately exonerated and pardoned by Governor George Ryan when he emptied death row in 2003. I met Madison soon after he got out; he did an event at NYU Law School where, after he told his story, a student came up and said, "But in the end, the system worked! You got out!" I've never forgotten that. Today, I am still committed to exposing the myriad ways in which the system DOESN'T work.
The criminal justice system is a vast messy thing and I could cover it forever while only scratching the surface. But my first real reported piece for the Nation was about an anti-gay, right-wing-orchestrated attack on an attempt to implement a progressive sex-ed curriculum in Montgomery County, Maryland. It was a lot of fun, and in the end, the story took all sorts of unexpected turns. Any topic that allows you to talk to people who seem to live on another planet — like the activists in this story — is something I would probably enjoy.
5. Who else do you think is covering prisons and harsh sentencing well? Who do you read? Do you have any favorite blogs?
My favorite publications to read on this topic are prison newspapers. You would not believe the caliber of journalism that is produced by incarcerated people. I subscribe to the Angolite and read San Quentin News, which comes to the office, and I always learn something new. I also read Prison Legal News, which has done really important journalism and advocacy work.
A lot of the best reporting on this stuff ends up in local publications. The Times-Picayune did incredibly important reporting on Louisiana's state's prison system, which makes that paper's demise a real tragedy. Mary Beth Pfeiffer at the Poughkeepsie Journal did heroic work on suicides among prisoners in solitary in NY State. City Limits here in NYC has done incredibly valuable reporting as well. So has the New York Times. A writer I work with now, Jordan Smith, reports brilliantly — and with a strong stomach — on criminal justice for the Austin Chronicle. So does Pam Colloff in the Texas Monthly. I just finished working with [Mother Jones's] James Ridgeway and Jean Casella — who I hugely admire — on a piece about New York State. In terms of more general writing on sentencing, etc, I always read Adam Liptak in the New York Times — and Dahlia Lithwick in Slate is one of my favorites.
And of course there are lots of blogs on this issue and law/criminal justice in general although I don't get to most on a daily basis: Solitary Watch, Sentencing Law and Policy, A Public Defender, Grits For Breakfast, Prison Reform Movement, Prison Culture, Governing Through Crime, The Agitator. Prison Law Blog, which was written by Sara Mayeux, was a favorite, but it's no more, sadly.
6. Where do you see the line between activism and journalism? Is there a line? Does that question come up for you in your work?
What I like about being at the Nation — what brought me here — is its commitment to advocacy journalism. I write with an agenda, which is partly to convince people to care about an issue they have not necessarily thought about before. I think when you're committed to storytelling — and to the facts, including the inconvenient ones — that line is not a hard one to negotiate.
7. What was your favorite part about the Nation's internship program?
Being surrounded by smart, engaged, political people. Working with journalists whose work I admired. Seeing the raw materials of an investigative or well-reported story, as part of the fact-checking process.
And happy hour. We had a blast.
Tags: liliana segura