I learned that Theresa Dunlap was very ill a couple of months ago. I responded to her terminal cancer diagnosis with tears and silence. I did not want to talk about the reality of her sickness. The thought of her having to leave this world while still trapped behind barbed wire and locked doors was too much to speak about.
But love is stronger than grief.
I remember landing at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility 36 years ago and getting to know Theresa from the get-go. She took me under her wing. She helped me learn how to survive prison. When someone asked me who Theresa’s “kids” inside were, I said: “all of us.”
She was always walking. She was spry and energetic, full of life and creativity.
I was just 18 when I met her; I was sentenced to a 40- to 60-year sentence at age 17. She was 31 when we met and had been sentenced to life without parole at age 20 for first-degree murder. We both had young sons we left behind. She had already been in prison for 13 years when I arrived young, naive and vulnerable.
She walked the track every day and held her head high. She taught me that I could hold my head high, too.
I was released on parole from Women’s Huron Valley at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020 after serving 34 years. At this time, people in Michigan and around the country were calling for elderly and sick people in prison to be released through any avenues possible.
Commutations by the governor are one way people sentenced to death by incarceration can receive the gift of freedom. But here in Michigan, throughout COVID-19, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has barely used that power to help long-serving elderly or sick people. We lost more than 150 people in prison to the virus, and almost every one of them was over 50 and serving a life or long sentence.
Theresa managed to dodge the wrath of COVID-19, but another deadly diagnosis befell her in the midst of the pandemic. In November 2021, she bent over to get her footlocker and thought she pulled her hamstring. But the strained hamstring did not get better. She tried to be seen by medical providers for the ailment, but medical care in prisons is overburdened and slow. Her supervisor at work, where she had been a dedicated — albeit low-paid — and trusted secretary for 13 years, implored medical providers to see Theresa because “she was not walking right.”
The pulled hamstring turned out to be a terminal diagnosis. In December, she was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer. Her remaining days became hampered by illness.
In Michigan, we have no roads to speedy release for people serving life or long years who need emergency relief to go home and die (or be really sick) with their loved ones. So without a major change, Theresa — a woman who has served decades in prison and bears no risk to public safety — will die behind bars.
We can’t keep going on this way. Ultimately, people who practice forgiveness in their daily lives and believe in compassion and second chances know 20 years is a long time to be locked up. This is also validated by data: research shows that people age out of crime.
Releasing people is also in the best interest of the community. So many people who have been to prison, including myself, have the love of community, the good sense to not harm others and resounding lessons to share about how to live peacefully in the middle of the hardest of circumstances.
Theresa always turned the corners of the track with more than her head held high: She held her head up and showed me that I was worthy, dignified and of value. I am asking Gov. Whitmer to use her clemency powers quickly so that Theresa can go home to be with her son and daughter-in-law in her last days.
I am also asking all of us to stand in solidarity with policies that free people who are ready to come home and be productive citizens, as well as elderly citizens who need care in their final days. We need to adopt “second-look” policies that would allow sentencing judges to reconsider long sentences after a period of positive time in prison. We need to pressure our governor and our legislature to do better by all of us. As we do this work together, the governor must use her clemency powers to let Theresa free.
I learned how to walk proud, survive the greatest struggles and be a solid and good person from people like Theresa. She deserves freedom in her final days.
Lawanda Hollister was incarcerated for decades at Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility, located right next to Ann Arbor.