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[VIRTUAL] COVID-19 and Incarceration in Michigan

black-and-white image of a cell block hallway; in the foreground a cell door stands open; PEN America logo in white in the upper left corner; white text over a red box reads “COVID-19 and Incarceration in Michigan”

Join the PEN America Detroit Chapter for a panel discussion featuring key organizers and journalists advocating for incarcerated folks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the outset of the pandemic, community organizers, journalists, and advocates have been taking action to ensure steps are taken to ensure the health and safety of the incarcerated across the country. In Michigan prisons, where corrections staff determine how many of the CDC recommendations incarcerated people are able to follow and to what extent, the work of activists and journalists has been essential to the provision of safety measures for incarcerated populations across the state. This panel discussion will feature several of these key organizers and journalists in conversation about their experiences.


This event will also feature a representative from PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program, who will speak about Temperature Check: Covid-19 Behind Bars. This new rapid response series features original creative reportage by incarcerated writers, accompanied by podcast interviews with criminal justice reform experts on the pandemic’s impact in United States’ prisons.


Jonah Mixon-Webster headshotJonah Mixon-Webster is a poet and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, MI. His debut poetry collection, Stereo(TYPE), received the 2017 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press and the 2019 PEN America/Joyce Osterweil Award, and was a finalist for the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He is an assistant professor of English at Lansing Community College, and is completing his Ph.D. at Illinois State University. He is the recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, The Conversation Literary Festival, and ivoh, and is a 2019–2020 PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow. His poetry and hybrid works are featured in various publications, including Callaloo, PennSound, Best New Poets 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2018.


Shawanna Vaughn headshot

Shawanna Vaughn is the founder and director of Silent Cry, Inc. She hails from Bakersfield, CA and has made New York State her home with her two children. Vaughn is a zealous advocate for social justice, women’s health, and children in the foster care system. Silent Cry, Inc. is the product of the tears that Vaughn has shed while overcoming pain and hardships of incarceration and the death of her brother, Albert Phillips Jr., to gang initiation caused by a young man. As a former foster care child and formerly incarcerated, Vaughn has been impacted by the aftermath of senseless violence and witnessed horrifying events when she was once “property of the state.” With a passion for spoken word, civic engagement, visual arts and literature, Vaughn has turned her tragedies into branches of healing.

Headshot of Sarah Rahal standing in front of green hedgesSarah Rahal is a city reporter at The Detroit News. Aside from her city beat, Rahal has been focused on daily coronavirus reporting in Michigan, immigration topics, and helps with The News’ investigations. She most recently partnered with Bridge Magazine to write a series on a national caregiver shortage during the pandemic. Rahal, 26, joined the breaking news desk in 2017 after graduating from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in new media studies. She is a graduate of the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity, an honors program at the university. As a Dearborn native, Rahal also reports on culture and communities for The Detroit News. She previously had bylines in Detroit Metro Times, Hour Detroit, BLAC magazine, and Metro Parent. She also represents Arab Americans in newsrooms as president of the Michigan chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

Cole WilliamsCole Williams standing in front of a white backdrop is the cofounder of The Delta Project, whose mission is to break the generational cycle of incarceration by reconnecting youth of color and their families to community relationships through mentorship, coaching, and storytelling. Williams is the creator of Cole Speaks LLC, a workshop series facilitated by Williams and his young adult son Nate. It is a moving and revelatory series of workshops and conversations that explores his journey from growing up fatherless, to becoming a single teenage father, to reuniting with his biological father, to fostering and adopting fatherless youth. Williams is a parent, mentor, and community leader in Grand Rapids, MI. He has over 10 years of experience working with adolescent males who come from abuse and neglected backgrounds.

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