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By Sydney Hawkins
The first case of COVID-19 in a Michigan prison was reported March 27 at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. Since then, the Michigan Department of Corrections has confirmed more than 400 cases in several prisons across the state, with the virus accounting for 10 deaths.
Carol Jacobsen, a professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design, is an award-winning social documentary artist whose works in video and photography address issues of women’s criminalization and censorship.
Jacobsen is also the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project. In that capacity, she advocates for the human rights of women prisoners and seeks freedom for women that have been wrongly incarcerated. She joins a growing number of advocates, including the ACLU, Safe & Just Michigan, the American Friends Service Committee and others that are calling for the release of elderly and nonviolent prisoners in the wake of COVID-19.
Has your role as an advocate changed during COVID-19? Have you been in touch with inmates in any Michigan prisons?
I have been in contact with many inmates in recent weeks, and I knew two of the women that died at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. The women I work with are in on charges where they acted in self-defense or did not receive fair trials based on the context of their cases. I’ve spent more than 30 years working with some of them—helping them to write clemency applications and connecting them to pro bono attorneys. I’m very worried about all of them right now. Lately, I’ve been helping to provide support to the families of the deceased and have been urging public officials to prioritize the release of others I know that are ill or vulnerable.
Why are prison populations more vulnerable to COVID-19?
The prisons are not quarantining properly and in some cases, due to overcrowding of the facilities, they just can’t. As an example, Huron Valley was built to be able to house about 600 inmates and there are currently 2,000 there right now. Based on many accounts from the inside, it is pretty chaotic and they’re just moving women around inside the prison. I, along with many others in Michigan, are urging the governor to release many of the elderly, nonviolent, low-risk prisoners that are sitting ducks. It is very much a humanitarian issue, and under these circumstances, action needs to be taken right now.
Many of the imprisoned women that you work with are survivors of domestic violence. Recent reports have shown that domestic violence has increased during lockdowns in many parts of the world. Can anything be done to address this problem in Michigan or other places in the U.S.?
More than one woman in Michigan is murdered by a husband or a boyfriend each week. Whenever there’s any kind of economic problem, violence against women goes up—it is another worldwide epidemic altogether. Many countries in the world, including our own, could end this crisis of domestic violence if they had the will and intention to do so. In these times especially though, women are left alone to defend themselves and their children because domestic violence calls are dangerous and often avoided by police. We need to require legislators, judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and law enforcement officials to undergo regular training in domestic violence and women abuse. People think they understand the issue but certainly, those professionals in the criminal system do not understand it at all.
By Jeff Bleiler