We Have No Idea How Many People in Prison Actually Have COVID-19

The criminal justice system has always been opaque. During the pandemic, it’s even worse.

A half-dozen people wearing masks hold signs listing the names and ages of people who died of COVID-19.
A May 12 demonstration in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Francisco to honor victims of COVID-19 who have died while incarcerated
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In Arizona, only 0.33 percent of the prison population has tested positive for COVID-19. This may seem encouraging—until you realize that tests have only been administered to 533 people of a total daily population of 41,248. Meanwhile, in Marion Correctional Institution, a prison in Ohio that has conducted mass testing, 2,143 incarcerated individuals (nearly 90 percent of the facility’s population) have tested positive, and 14 have died.

These contrasting examples demonstrate a disturbing reality: We don’t have a good picture of how COVID-19 is ravaging the criminal justice system now, and it’s even more unclear what the system will look like in the future. The only certainty is that effects on incarcerated people, corrections staff, and their families and communities are and will continue to be devastating. While many facilities have taken some steps in the right direction, few have taken enough.
Now, it has fallen on researchers, journalists, and advocates to gather, centralize, and share data about the toll of COVID-19 behind bars, with the hope that more information will lead to better responses—and saved lives.

The U.S. criminal justice system, by design, has long been a black box. In the 1970s, the beginning of the era of mass incarceration, the Supreme Court affirmed corrections officials’ rights to limit public and media access in their institutions, creating what Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, calls a “culture of secrecy.”

Over the next several decades, the reality that took hold in prisons and jails around the U.S. involved “increasing crowding, increasing inadequacy of health care, [and] increasing inhumanity of conditions,” said Dolovich. And now, those same facilities are facing a pandemic.

The perils COVID-19 poses for incarcerated people are numerous. The incarcerated population is aging, and many individuals have prior conditions. Social distancing is often impossible, and even simple measures like frequent hand-washing and cleaning high-touch items can be severely limited. Very few facilities are testing sufficiently, and the few facilities that are mass testing (like Marion) are finding “mass infections.”

A lack of public information about what’s going on in prisons and jails—in normal and pandemic times—leaves room for neglect, missteps, and backward-oriented thinking, which ultimately threaten not just incarcerated populations but also the communities inextricably connected to them. Thus, it is crucial to track the steps facilities are and are not taking, and their consequences. The U.S. criminal justice system is highly decentralized and opaque, but jails and prisons often rely on lessons from other jurisdictions in considering what policy changes are possible in their own facilities, said Maddy deLone, the former executive director of the Innocence Project.

In March, deLone began watching facilities in New York take action to reduce their incarcerated populations through releases. She wondered if other facilities around the U.S. were doing the same—and whether any of it was being systematically tracked. When she found it wasn’t, she joined forces with Dolovich, who had started a collaborative spreadsheet to document criminal justice responses to COVID-19. The spreadsheet, which Dolovich first conceived in early March as a tool for personal research, quickly became the UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

The project, directed by Dolovich, is tracking confirmed cases and deaths in corrections facilities; prison, jail, and immigration detention releases, as well as requests for such releases; policies affecting carceral conditions and visitation policies; and the situations in youth correctional and immigration detention facilities, among other indicators. Along with initiatives like Covid Prison Data, the project serves as a small window into the U.S. criminal justice system during a moment when most doors are bolted shut.

The project, which is largely volunteer-run, involves scraping dashboards published by corrections facilities where possible, but some categories involve a more qualitative process, gathering information submitted by individuals or digging through media reports and press releases.

The project’s audience is generally a mix of journalists, litigators, and policy analysts, Dolovich said. One user is Recidiviz, a nonprofit that employs data to help corrections departments reduce incarceration. Clementine Jacoby, Recidiviz’s executive director, told me that when the pandemic hit, “Suddenly the need for timely, granular data … became a really acute need.” To meet that need, a team of software engineers from the group sat down over a weekend in late March. Seventy-two hours later, they launched their first COVID-19 impact model in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. Within 48 hours, the model had been downloaded in all 50 states.

Since then, Recidiviz has released a web application available for free to anyone with a .gov email address. It’s also updated its Excel model, which anyone can download online. The model combines epidemiological data with criminal justice data—including the data collected by the UCLA Law project—to allow corrections officials to predict things like when cases will peak in their facilities, how many hospitalizations and fatalities will result from that peak, and how policy changes such as reducing population or adjusting living conditions can flatten the curve.

Looking to the future, Dolovich said she hasn’t seen any recognition of the “need to overcome the culture of secrecy” that permeates the corrections space. Still, she can find reasons to be hopeful.

To start, officials across the country are strategizing to reduce the incarcerated population through releases and reduced admissions. “And that is a sea change from the mindset that we have had for the last four and a half decades,” Dolovich said.

There are also signs of a “collective cultural shift,” said Dolovich. Increased awareness of the dangers of COVID-19 in prisons and jails has humanized the people held by system built upon dehumanization, pushing forward the recognition that it is profoundly unjust, in deLone’s words, “to subject them to death when that wasn’t the sentence.”

That’s a shift that’s hard to quantify or track, said Dolovich. But there’s no doubt it’s a significant one.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.