Local Journalist Heroes: Justine van der Leun
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Justine van der Leun
Outlet: Independent journalist
City: Brooklyn, NY
What do you want your readers to know about what goes into the coverage they’re relying on?
I’m currently writing almost exclusively about prisons, and there’s been a lot coming out about how the virus is blasting through these facilities. We only know the details of what’s happening inside because incarcerated people put themselves at enormous risk of retaliation and punishment to communicate with the media. Any prison reporting that centers the voices of those inside is the result of someone having the courage to come forward in the face of losing what little they have left. Especially during this crisis, it’s often because they are advocating not for themselves, but for elderly or vulnerable people locked up with them.
“Any prison reporting that centers the voices of those inside is the result of someone having the courage to come forward in the face of losing what little they have left. Especially during this crisis, it’s often because they are advocating not for themselves, but for elderly or vulnerable people locked up with them.”
How have the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing requirements changed your reporting and the way your newsroom operates more broadly?
The communication channels that we all depend on while isolated are many of the same that people in prison use as a matter of course: letters, emails, and phone calls. So while I’m no longer able to do in-person visits, I don’t have to change my daily reporting methods much. That said, I do have a clearer perspective of how precious those avenues are when you have no other way to interact. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the Postal Service suffers, so does my information flow. Many prisons have no email option, but in those that do, letters are still crucial. As more incarcerated populations are locked down, using the mail has become increasingly necessary, even for those with email access. For example, certain prisons, trying to enforce quarantines by unit, are now giving people 45 minutes a day total to shower, make phone calls, and send emails from shared kiosks. It’s hard to send anything lengthy or meaningful within those strictures. But they can still write freely from their dorms or cells.
Meanwhile, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, so many postal workers have gotten sick or have been exposed to the virus. The local station is operating at partial capacity, while trying to deliver even more packages. My mail has slowed down and been staggered, even though my postal workers, Norman and Kia, have been out there every single day through this entire pandemic. When I think of the administration’s opposition to saving our postal service, I think about these workers risking their lives to get mail to us, and I think of how much people in prison depend on that service to simply reach their families, as well as to interact with reporters, advocates, legal teams, and receive books and educational materials. The USPS is a critical tool of a free American press and of our justice system, and it’s not a coincidence that during this pandemic, it’s been the target of politically-motivated attacks.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that as the Postal Service suffers, so does my information flow.”
What books, poems, podcasts, or other creative media have you been turning to for comfort or inspiration?
I’ve been reading through Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, an anthology edited by Carolyn Forché. It contextualizes this pandemic as a historic time that we’re living through—not the first, not the last, and not a war, but a struggle that we need to keep a record of. Also, old and funny episodes of This American Life (“Fiasco” is my all-time favorite) and the new season of Better Call Saul.
About Justine van der Leun
Justine van der Leun is an independent journalist and the author of several books, the most recent of which is We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, VQR, The Guardian, and Harper’s, among others. She is a reporter with Type Investigations and a 2019–2020 PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow.
Examples of Coverage
- Death of a Survivor: In April, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay became the first woman incarcerated by New York State to die from Covid-19. Should she have been in prison in the first place?
- The Amazon Warehouse Worker Who Can’t Stay Home
- ‘People Are Panic-Buying Cocaine’: The Drug Dealer, Spaceman, Therapist and Others on Life After Coronavirus
- I Served 22 Years in Prison and Was Just Released Into a Pandemic