Timothy Bazrowx was an inmate at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation and hit prisons hard.
“I don’t like to think of dying, but we all have an expiration date. [In prison] sickness runs like a crazy horse through a flower bed,” Bazrowx wrote in a letter to The Marshall Project in March 2020.
He passed away five weeks later. COVID-19 was an implicated cause of death.
Bazrowx’s words are just a few of the thousands in “EXPOSED,” an interactive documentary that shows the spread of COVID-19 through prison systems in the US since April 2020.
Sharon Daniel, a film and digital media professor at UC Santa Cruz, gathered quotes from sources like the Marshall Project and Tim Young, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. Daniel’s project currently consists of a total of 8,871 quotes, soundbites, and statistics. She says it would take about 60 hours to fully explore this documentary.
“The goal is to create a comprehensive public record of the problem of COVID-19 in carceral spaces,” Daniel said. “[The project demonstrates] that mass incarceration already was a public health crisis before the pandemic.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Daniel was unable to do in-person interviews, instead sifting through the internet for data and keeping up with news about COVID-19 in prisons. She began gathering data from The Marshall Project in April 2020 to create a public-facing project that would report on the spread from the perspectives of inmates, detainees, and their family members and advocates, which later became “EXPOSED.”
Daniel then contacted Erik Loyer, a longtime collaborator and software artist, to build a custom interface for the unique structure of her interactive documentary.
Using the arrow keys or space bar, viewers can scroll through the timeline and read statements on how inmates are affected by COVID-19. Audio experts from newscasts and radio shows allow viewers to listen to the harrowing conditions of prisons during the pandemic, which are all presented through a vertical timeline.
“We found it was more complicated than we thought, because in some cases we had multiple statements per day. Some days might have only one statement, some have none, some might have 10,” Loyer said. “So how do you represent that in a way that gives you the sense of how time is passing, but also gives you a sense of how much content is available?”
Daniel has been making interactive documentaries for around 20 years. Her previous projects include “Public Secrets,” “Blood Sugar,” and “Inside The Distance” that have focused largely on social issues like mass incarceration and poverty.
Daniel works with interactive documentaries because they offer a way to tell multiple stories at once, rather than following the linear format of a film documentary. Interactive documentaries allow the creator to experiment with the data collected and create a web of stories out of one topic.
“I like to bring together as many voices as possible, speaking both to them and their particular circumstances, but in a collective way in order not to rely on the narrative arc that often occurs in documentary filmmaking,” Daniel said. “I think by bringing multiple voices together in a polyphonic expression of a social problem can be more effective.”
The interactive documentary is updated weekly by Daniel, Loyer, and student interns from the Science & Justice Research Center. Interns collect data through interviews with people who are imprisoned, or by searching through the internet for any new information. Then, the data is run through the code script created by Loyer that pulls content out of their forms and uploads information and testimonies onto the interactive documentary.
As a part of Barring Freedom, an exhibition on abolition put together by UCSC’s Institute of Arts and Sciences, “EXPOSED” comments on the underlying health crisis that is mass incarceration. By shedding light on how COVID-19 affects prisons, Daniel hopes that “EXPOSED” is a step toward abolition.
“One of the things that the pandemic may have served to do is forcing some prison systems to release people who didn’t really need to be there,” Daniel said. “If there’s success in demonstrating over time to the public that we really don’t need to lock people up in order to be safe.”