Spotlight Exclusives

Tracking the Impact of COVID in Prisons

Sharon Dolovich Sharon Dolovich, posted on

Close to 3,000 people have died from COVID-19 while incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails and most criminal justice experts believe the actual number is significantly higher; getting information from U.S. prisons has always been difficult and it proved even more so during the pandemic. In trying to help make more COVID information from U.S. prisons public, Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at UCLA and director of the school’s Prison Law and Policy Program, founded the COVID Behind Bars Data Project, a data trove that came together organically from the efforts of Dolovich and her team and collaborators across the country. Dolovich discussed the project’s past and future with Spotlight recently; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about how the COVID Behind Bars Data Project got started.

The first thing to say is, people often ask, when did you decide to start this project, and basically it decided itself. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of advocates were mobilizing to file lawsuits and demand better conditions for people in custody and to get people out of custody as soon as they realized the nature of the disease and it was obvious that people in custody would be at great risk. I had started just keeping track for my own purposes of the visitation cancellations that were happening in prison systems across the country and I happened to be part of a prisoner’s listserv, which was really the channel of communications for people doing prisoner’s rights work around the country. And someone said, can one of our academic friends put an open-source spreadsheet online so we can share our work? And I said, I have this basic spreadsheet for myself, why don’t I put up a two-tab spreadsheet and people can post their work on what’s happening with visitations in their communities?

And then what happened was people started posting and then started sharing and posting and answers started coming in. We had titled the tab, Population Reduction Requests and then it was coded for who was being asked, courts, governors, etc. Then, people started sending in responses, so we started a third tab listing those and that got shared. At that point, people started to ask if I needed help since we weren’t tracking releases and there were an awful lot of releases. I said that would be great, so we started a tab for jail releases and a tab for prison releases. Someone then reached out about doing youth facilities and so we added that and then a funder, Vital Projects Fund, got in touch and asked if we needed help and that enabled us to get some data scientists to work on the project. There was very little information available at that time, so the team began to start manually filling out spreadsheets with whatever data they could find. We were also able to get funding for some web scrapers and I was just overwhelmed with offers from people to volunteer for the project. We’ve had over 300 active volunteers over the life of the project and we currently have 100. I’m just giving a flavor for how it all came together—it was very crazy, but also very rewarding.

And you’re planning for this to continue for the foreseeable future?

Yes. I think at our height, we had a staff of nine and we’re now at seven or 8. We’re still scraping the web for data and cleaning the existing data. We have a threefold mission I would say. The first thing is making as much data as possible about the impact of COVID in prisons available to the public. We answer questions from journalists, we work with policymakers, we help advocates and activists—anybody that needs our data, we want to help them, including, by the way, the CDC. Early on, the CDC reached out to us to look at our data and then they contracted with us. So, that’s been a primary motivation, to try to help the people who are working to help people on the inside.

The second thing that became clear is that while at the beginning, I thought we would just make data available for others to analyze and that we didn’t have any particular insights, it turned out that we do, as my team knows the data so well. So, we have started doing our own data analysis and it’s really about trying to map the disparity of the rate of infection and death from COVID for people in custody. We published a paper last July that was the first to track this disparity in infection and death and one of the things we’re doing now is updating that data.

The third thing that motivates me is that I want us to have a rich archive of data related to COVID when this is all over and people start trying to make sense of what happened during this period to people in prison. We will have all kinds of data that people can use. And our view is that we’ll keep going as long as COVID is an issue for people in custody, and I’m glad we have. If we hadn’t, we’ve seen things we would have missed, including the huge spike in ICE detentions. We’re going to keep tracking until no more data is available and then we’re going to turn to data analysis. One of our big themes from the beginning has been the terrible lack of data transparency and quality so we’re going to continue to work in that space. We also have a huge amount of data that we’ve got from public record requests as we try to fill in the holes that are left by the state agencies, so we’re continuing to use that channel.

And just to emphasize the point that while part of this project was aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data, getting the data was also enormously difficult. And sounds like it continues to be enormously difficult.

It is. There are so many dimensions. It’s because so many agencies don’t want to disclose it. Or they disclose in ways that make it very hard to scrape. My team has to change their scrapers every week because the departments of correction are changing their format every week. On the one hand, you could say this is a signal moment because it’s the very first instance where departments of correction across the country are voluntarily disclosing health data related to people in custody; normally it’s secret and you don’t get it at all. So, you might say that it’s wonderful that they’re finally being transparent, but this also shows how non-transparent they usually are and they play a lot of games, which really impedes our ability to get accurate data. For example, both Florida and Texas stopped reporting key metrics at the end of 2020 and we’ve been trying to figure out other ways to get that data. This is emblematic of the problem with prisons in the United States, which is they have been allowed to nurture a culture of secrecy around what happens in prisons when actually these are public institutions that are supposed to be serving the public. We not only have a right to know what’s happening in prisons; we actually have an urgent need to know in order to make good policy. Hopefully, this leads to a feeling in the country that we should make all data public about prisons.

Do you have a sense of vaccination rates within prisoner populations?

Yes and no. We have vaccine data on our home page, but not all agencies are reporting it, so I think we have about 28 entries. The real problem, in terms of keeping COVID out of prisons now, is the staff.

Have you seen the impact of the Delta variant in the numbers that you’ve seen?

It’s hard to know because the data we have doesn’t identify a variant strain. But there are facilities like one in Hawaii where they have a low vaccination rate that recently went from having no cases to having several hundred cases in the space of a few weeks, and I have to assume that was Delta. We’re seeing the same kind of dramatic uptick in ICE detentions where the vaccine numbers are also small.

I also wanted to ask you about some recent news in this space, with the Justice Department saying it plans to return prisoners who had been released during the pandemic.

I can’t tell you how deeply misguided and tragic I think this is. First of all, the Justice Department’s assertion is that they are bound to do this by the statute, and I don’t believe that’s true. But in any case, what you have is people who were carefully vetted—it wasn’t as if anybody just opened up the door and released a bunch of people without checking to see who they were. As far as I’m concerned, the federal government moved at a glacial pace and released far fewer people than they could have released safely. What we’re talking about is people they were certain would not pose any public safety threat, and now they’re out, and they clearly don’t pose any public safety threat. And the idea that in a moment of mass incarceration when so much of our efforts are being focused on how do we shrink the carceral footprint, the idea that we have identified people who are safe to release but now we’re going to return them to custody serves no aspect of the public good that I can see. I think it is just the most tragic and misguided move and I think it tells us how little appetite there actually is for reducing mass incarceration.

And what is the potential remedy to that? The president would have to pardon those who were released?

Certainly, if the president were to pardon them or commute the sentences, that would be the easiest way to do it. But I don’t see him doing that for political reasons. Congress also could do it, but they’re not going to. So, what we’re back to again is the kind of political football that negatively impacts incarcerated people. I’m really struck by the way that it is so much easier for us not to incarcerate than it is to release people who were incarcerated. It’s almost as if as soon as you go behind bars, all of society’s irrational and ideological fears come into play and politically it becomes impossible.

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