This project was launched by a group of interdisciplinary scientists who work at the intersection of public health and criminal justice. We hope to fill a major gap in how COVID-19 in correctional settings is reported, tracked, and analyzed.
The risk posed by infectious diseases in prisons and jails is significantly higher than in the community, both in terms of risk of transmission, exposure, and harm to individuals who become infected. This is true of other group living facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In correctional facilities, risk is driven by close-quarter unsanitary living conditions and limited access to hygiene products. Moreover, people in prisons tend to have a higher burden of health conditions that may make them more susceptible to COVID-19, because they overwhelmingly come from our most marginalized neighborhoods.
Some jails and prisons have worked to change policy to release people and modify their policies on the inside to prevent disease transmission. Some have not. Regardless of these actions, many jails and prison across the country have become the epi-center of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, with outbreaks occurring in large urban jails (e.g. Riker’s Island, Cook County Jail) and prison facilities (in Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and other states).
While we are reporting these data, it is important to keep in mind a few things. First, these data are preliminary. Just like reporting by departments of public health, it will likely be months (or years) before we have a complete set of valid data. Still, it is important to monitor these trends as they develop over time. Second, we caution against comparing the number of cases and the number of tests within departments of correction across states. States vary in the type of information they are reporting. The number of cases directly correlates to the number of tests, meaning that states that are doing more testing will have a higher number of positive cases. Testing guidelines for prisons are likely shaped by other state agencies (e.g., departments of public health). And, the inmate population size and correctional management strategies (e.g., inmate housing) vary by state. We think it is more useful to compare what is happening in prisons to what is happening in the community within their state. Third, it is important to keep in mind that there is a natural lag in reporting: from the time someone is tested, to when results are received, to when they are reported internally, and, finally, to when they are reported publicly. Our data come from the information that is publicly reported by departments of correction. The most common way that states are reporting information about prisons is through their website, but this is not always the case.
Over the coming weeks, we hope to grow our website and make it more interactive. So please check back often for new content. If you are a prison administrator, and you have more accurate data that you want to share with us, please contact us! We also welcome ideas and questions from viewers.