The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Advocates, inmates memorialize ‘overlooked’ lives lost to coronavirus behind bars

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When Anthony Blue died of covid-19 in May inside a Maryland prison, the state Department of Corrections didn’t say much about him, much less identify him.

In a six-sentence news release, the agency reported that Blue was in his 60s and suffered from preexisting medical conditions. It offered “condolences to the family of an inmate.”

Privacy laws, the statement said, prevented officials from naming him or commenting further.

Caroline Harlow, who studied criminology at the University of California at Irvine and plans to start law school next year, wanted a grander legacy for Blue, who spent four decades behind bars for a murder conviction. She wrote a memorial for Mourning Our Losses, a website created by advocates and people in prison to celebrate lives uncelebrated during an unforgiving pandemic that has been disproportionately deadly behind bars.

Harlow based her work on a Baltimore Sun story about 63-year-old Blue — but didn’t mention the crime for which he was convicted.

Harlow didn’t want to write another story about a perpetrator, inmate or convict — stories that already have been written. She wanted to write a story about a man who had struggled with schizophrenia and lost his vision as a result of self-inflicted injuries, but also learned Braille and was loved by his family.

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“I was very sad the criminal justice system failed Anthony, but I was proud that I could tell his story in a different way,” she said. “I could tell the story of him as a person, not just him as a convicted criminal.”

Mourning Our Losses is the brainchild of Kelsey Kauffman, a former corrections officer and longtime prison advocate from Indiana. Kauffman said the site was “born out of anguish” as the pandemic began, when activists realized their attempts to prevent coronavirus deaths in prison would come to naught.

The site has remembrances for more than 100 inmates who died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“These are people I care about,” she said. “You want to mourn people you care about. . . . I want this to be in the historical record. When people are looking back 10 or 100 years from now, I want them to know who the people are who died.”

To pay tribute to lives lost, Mourning Our Losses first has to find the virus’s victims.

Kirsten Pickering, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those looking. The search isn’t simple — the information available about prisoners who die of the coronavirus varies greatly depending on where they were incarcerated.

Some departments of corrections make no public announcement when someone dies of coronavirus complications in custody, Pickering said. Others, like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, release names of victims and sometimes a short narrative that sketches out the circumstances of their deaths.

Even when official information is available, advocates say news releases aren’t proper obituaries. The bureau’s death notices detail crimes that virus victims were convicted of, but don’t mention families or their lives before incarceration.

“We are trying to honor everybody,” Pickering said. “We know that we won’t succeed — at least not for a long time — but that’s the idea. Everyone deserves to be remembered as a person.”

The website’s style guide prohibits mentioning convicted crimes. The site also avoids using mug shots and focuses on positive information about a person, like interests or hobbies, to make memorials a “celebration of life,” according to the style guide.

Eliza Kravitz, a college student from D.C. who recently completed her first year at Yale University, became interested in prison reform after hearing Kauffman speak at her high school last year. She was active with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project but, with sophomores unable to live on campus because of the pandemic, she is taking a semester off partly to work with Mourning Our Losses.

“These people — their lives — are often overlooked and not honored,” she said. “They’re often portrayed as less than human. Our mission is to humanize them — to celebrate their stories.”

Kravitz and others collect information about prisoner deaths from media reports or family members and mail it to people in prison so that they can write memorials for fellow inmates.

When Madonna Watson died of covid-19 at age 44 in June, little was done to mark her passing. She was serving time at a prison near Los Angeles, but her name was not released when she died. Her friends posted a memorial to Mourning Our Losses.

“Madonna grew tremendously here behind these walls,” April Harris, who is incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, wrote on the site. “. . . The thing that sticks with me the most is her attitude. She wasn’t afraid. Of nothing or no one. She lived out loud. So many women have yet to find their roar. Madonna was born with hers.”

With about 1,000 Americans dying of the coronavirus daily and Zoom memorials the norm, there’s little time to give any covid-19 victims their due. But, Harris said, the problem is worse for those who die in prison.

“A majority of the time no one knows when an inmate has passed on,” she wrote in an email. “Especially inside of prison walls. No announcements are made or notifications sent out. You hear about it through word of mouth or you pose the famous prison question: ‘Whatever happened to so and so?’ Mourningourlosses provides that recognition that is so desperately needed.”

Beth Muse, who is incarcerated at Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, was connected to Mourning Our Losses through an educational program there. She wrote a memorial for Derick Coley, who died in May of covid-19 at age 29 at an Arkansas state prison, calling him “a loving and devoted father, son, brother, companion, and friend.”

“Although he is being embraced by the arms of eternity, his legacy carries on in the hearts of his loved ones forever,” the memorial said.

Muse didn’t know Coley and couldn’t interview his family. Still, she said in an email that she was struck by how young he was when he died, by his strong relationship with his sisters and by a photograph of him in media reports with his young daughter during a Father’s Day prison visit.

She thought he could have survived the coronavirus in prison if officials had thought of him as a father and taken additional precautions.

“I was left to wonder how the outcome of his battle with covid-19 may have been vastly different if Derick had been treated as a patient and not an offender,” she wrote.