Courtesy of Andrew Kornfeld

The crowd-sourced memorial Mourning Our Losses partnered with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, a social justice organization that seeks to challenge the inequity of the criminal justice system, and several other organizations for a Thursday afternoon virtual vigil that mourned the lost lives of incarcerated people who have died during the pandemic.

Mourning Our Losses was founded in May 2020 by a group of volunteers frustrated with high rates of prison deaths and the lack of information on these deaths. The organization memorializes and documents these incidents, according to Kelsey Kauffman ’71, who proposed the idea for the group in a Facebook post this past spring.

“It was about finding out that one of my favorite students from the Indiana women’s prison was on a ventilator and expected to die,” Kauffman said. “I wrote a really anguished post about how people like her were going to die, and nobody would know and nobody would care, even though they were much loved.”

Eliza Kravitz ’24 got involved with Mourning Our Losses after Kauffman reached out to her — Kauffman’s son was Kravitz’s high school physics teacher. She brought Mourning Our Losses to Yale’s campus and told the News that she disseminated the details of the project through Dwight Hall and YUPP email lists. Mourning Our Losses is now a direct service project within YUPP and Kravitz serves as a liaison between the two organizations. 

The vigil was part of Week of Mourning, a national movement from Oct. 4 to Oct. 11 honoring lives lost to COVID-19. The vigil was open to anyone who acquired free tickets in advance. Each day of the week honored a different group of individuals. According to Week of Mourning, Thursday, Oct. 8 commemorated those living and working in detention centers. Kravitz told the news that Mourning Our Losses has tracked 1,400 deaths in American prisons since its founding in May, 1,300 of which are incarcerated individuals while the rest were employees. 

Mourning Our Losses started planning the vigil a week before the event was set to take place. The organizers split the vigil into two parts. The first half was a video consisting of pre-recorded audio tributes to the deceased paired with photographs and works from the Justice Arts Coalition, an organization promoting the art of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. The video also featured poems, short films and paintings created by imprisoned people.

“We had hopes and dreams of him being released from prison and getting married,” read Kim Gaiera in remembrance of her late fiance, James McGuff. “We planned on living into our 80s together. But that was not God’s plan for us.”

In June 2020, McGuff died in prison. McGuff spent his time in prison writing children’s books in Braille. 

While some memorials focused solely on grieving the dead, others in the video condemned the justice system for its alleged culpability in COVID-19 deaths.

“In the wake of a deadly pandemic, every penalty has the potential to become a death penalty,” read a Mourning Our Losses volunteer in a memorial to Hector Rodriguez, a 60-year-old man who was found dead in his cell at Riker’s Island after COVID-19 exacerbated his pre-existing respiratory condtion.

The first half of the vigil focused on friends and family members of the deceased — many of whom were among the 75 attendants, according to Kravitz. Then, Mourning Our Losses dedicated the latter half to reciting the names of those who lost their lives.

“Even if the deaths that occur in prison are covered in the news rarely are they covered as a celebration of life or as a complete acknowledgment of what happened to these people as human beings,” Kravitz said in an interview with the News.

According to Kravitz, in certain states the Department of Corrections does not disclose the identity of those who passed away in prisons. Because of this policy, Mourning Our Losses only knows the names of about 60 percent of deceased persons, though the organization’s staffers are investigating the unknown identities.

Mourning Our Losses considers naming individuals a key component in restoring the humanity of those who have died. Along with this practice, the organization makes a point of not mentioning crime of conviction and of using person-oriented language — calling individuals people in prison rather than criminals.

Despite initial technical difficulties, Kravitz told the News that the organizers considered the vigil a success, believing that its imperfections reflect the grassroots nature of Mourning Our Losses as well as the ostensibly flawed system the organization highlights.

“This is an effort of people who are not Hollywood producers.” Kravitz said. “This was an event about community, and raising awareness and giving people the chance to share their stories, and the fact that it wasn’t perfect and had technical difficulties is definitely an integral part of our story.”

YUPP was founded in 2009.

Jordan Fitzgerald | jordan.fitzgerald@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

Clarification, Oct. 12: An earlier version of this story described YUPP as “a student organization focused on improving the criminal justice system.” However, that is not their mission. The story has been updated.