On a Friday afternoon in November, an event dubbed Mourning Our Losses (MOL) was held on San Quentin’s Lower Yard. It brought together about 200 people to pay tribute to the many lives lost during the COVID-19 outbreak. Attendees included the prison’s residents, people formerly incarcerated and volunteers from the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area.
MOL is a Texas-based nonprofit created to track and highlight the moral cost of mass incarceration nationwide, and to honor all those who have died while living or working behind bars.
San Quentin resident Arthur Jackson emceed the event. Activities began with participants walking a commemorative lap of silence on the Lower Yard. The walkers held up photographs and sketches of 25 of the people lost to COVID-19 at San Quentin.
“Walking with a photo around the track in silence was a very reflective reality check of how serious and dangerous COVID-19 is,” said Gordon Kimbrough, an incarcerated substance abuse counselor.
Bands performed, and speakers addressed attendees to encourage and inspire survivors and to reminiscence about the trials endured by San Quentin survivors of the pandemic.
Some in attendance read poems in honor of fallen friends and to relate their personal experiences during the COVID outbreak.
Warren Corley read a poem he wrote about his dear friend Darrell Gautt, Sr., one of those lost.
“Darrell loved the Lord. He was always putting others before himself,” Corley said. “We miss him dearly. He died the way he lived, with courage, joy, and giving people whatever was needed.” Guatt was a 25-year cancer survivor before falling victim to COVID.
Gautt was also remembered by event volunteer Kirsten Pickering, who used to teach philosophy classes at the prison. “I think of him often. He was one of my students here at San Quentin,” she said.
Michael Moore shared a piece called “13 Bars,” named for the door constructed from bars that made men at San Quentin so vulnerable.
“There are 13 bars, three inches apart, that allow for air to circulate into our cells,” Moore said. “People were dying all around me, literally from COVID wafting through the bars and into our lungs. I had to just sit and wait my turn.”
In honor of Eric Warner, a friend lost to the virus, Tony deTrinidad read “Invacuate-19.” The poem described the frequent alarms that indicated someone was in pain or was being placed on a gurney by emergency responders.
“Every time an alarm went off I would wonder who was dying now,” said deTrinidad. “Who else is in pain?”
Several of the prison’s religious leaders offered spiritual messages to the audience. Hector Frank Heredia, Native American chaplain, spoke about the dead. He reminded listeners to remember them in our hearts because they are our people.
“To all our relations we come in a good place to pray for those who have passed on,” said Heredia. “Most of those brothers that passed, I knew them on the Row [Death Row]. They are not forgotten; we don’t leave anyone behind.”
Reflecting on how dealing with the deaths of others can be difficult for many, Imam Mohamed, Muslim chaplain, said that the reality of death can weigh us down if we deny it. Therefore, it is important to ask God to bring us together as one.
In tribute to the lives lost, a moment of silence was accompanied by the sounds of bells rung 27 times from a band member’s electronic keyboard. According to Buddhist tradition, the number 108 represents infinity; when divided by four it equals 27.
Among the musical guests was David Rodriguez, bandleader of Treasure out of Darkness. “My sister passed away from COVID-19. The way I was able to play my music is something to ease the pain,” said Rodriguez.
Darryl Ferris leads alternative rock band Continuum. He knew five people who lost their lives during the pandemic. “It is nice to honor those victims, but also to honor those around the country and the world. I pray the Lord will give all the surviving victims comfort for their loss,” he said.
The rap group Da Conglomerate sang an inspirational piece aimed at a younger audience. The message in the rap was geared to be a public service announcement, said Steven “Rhashiyd” Zinnamon. He is sound designer for the podcast Ear Hustle and one of the incarcerated organizers of the event.
“It means different things to all of us,” said Zinnamon. “It shows the difference in the growth prior to us having insight into our younger selves.”
Others present at the remembrance included James Fox, who teaches yoga at San Quentin, and Sherie McNaulty, a sponsor for the reentry/non-violence self-help program, No More Tears.
Fox said that grief is a process that has no time limit and “has a cousin named trauma.” McNaulty agreed. “I think this was good and long overdue,” she said. “It gives people the freedom to mourn. Sometimes people don’t even know that they have the freedom to mourn.”
Pickering talked about how she became a Mourning Our Losses volunteer. She spoke about lives lost in prisons, jails, juvenile halls and immigration detention facilities. She said she was concerned after reading a University of California Los Angeles study called the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. The study showed that the outbreaks and deaths were going unnoticed.
“By April 2020, many could see the political leaders were not going to act, or [were] not [acting] quickly enough,” said Pickering. “So a group of us came together, people formerly and currently incarcerated, people who had worked or volunteered inside, to create a way to remember the lives of the people we were losing around the country, and to mourn and celebrate them together.”
Around the time the UCLA study came out, Kelsey Kauffman founded Mourning Our Losses. Kauffman has worked in and studied prisons for 50 years. She directed the college program at an Indiana Women’s Prison for six years. Later she advocated for the incarcerated. Perceiving that politicians and officials were not moving fast enough to address prison overcrowding, she worked for de-incarceration.
“When the prison was on lockdown, I was keeping track of the people who were dying,” said Tom Lapinski, who has been a volunteer at San Quentin for nearly 40 years. San Quentin’s lockdown lasted from March, 2020 until May, 2021.
A few family members of San Quentin’s COVID victims heard about the Nov. 5 event. They were moved to send in words of love and gratitude directed to the people in blue and all of the other attendees at the event.
SQNews s taffer J uan H aines, S QTV staffer Brian Asey, and volunteer Pickering read messages received from family members of victims. The messages expressed appreciation for the event memorializing their loved ones.
San Quentin medical staff also addressed the crowd, reflecting on the losses being memorialized, and the overall impact and trauma San Quentin residents endured during the pandemic. Dr. Alison Pachynski, San Quentin’s chief medical officer, reminded the gathering how important it is to pause and reach out to someone during a time of mourning. San Quentin Suicide Prevention Coordinator Dr. E. Anderson, Psy.D. introduced Brothers Keepers, a support group run by prisoners. The group offers counseling to prisoners going through crises due to loss of loved ones, illness, board denials, and other concerns.
Antwan “Banks” Williams, a well-known voice of Ear Hustle before paroling from San Quentin, closed the event with an inspirational rap song. His moving lyric summed up the day well.
“I never really felt like somebody — until somebody told me I could be somebody — now I’m somebody — who just wants to tell somebody — that you’re somebody — you’re somebody to me,” rapped Williams.
To date, Mourning Our Losses has made about 900 contacts with incarcerated people in 41 states. The organization has 24 incarcerated volunteers that have memorialized more than 250 people. Volunteers come from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Others come from prisons in Georgia and from the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project.
The MOL inside team included Asey, Haines, Zinnamon, Philippe Kelly, Leonard Brown, and Desmond Lewis. The outside team members were Lapinski and Pickering.
Send memorial submissions to:
Mourning Our Losses
P.O. Box 4430
Sunland, CA 91041
Mourning Our Losses
P.O. Box 15005
Austin, TX 78761