Opinion: End the silence about what Covid-19 is doing to America’s prisons

Defeating this pandemic begins with understanding the extent of the problem, and that starts with addressing the alarming shortage of comprehensive data from state and federal prisons and local jails. Far too many of the country’s correctional systems do not report such data on testing, cases, or deaths of incarcerated people or staff. The Covid-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act, would help address this dangerous information gap by mandating the collection and public reporting of information we need about the spread of Covid-19 in America’s prisons and jails.
The bill sets reporting standards to include the number of incarcerated individuals and staff who have been tested and retested; the type of test performed; the number of negative, active, and pending tests; and the outcomes of those who test positive, including the number of hospitalizations, recoveries, and deaths, along with stats on those who have been placed in or released from quarantine or medical isolation.
Importantly, the bill would also require data be disaggregated by demographic characteristics, including race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnicity, disability and geography. The prison system disproportionately targets people of color at every step of the process, from arrest to incarceration to sentencing. Visibility on racial health disparities — disparities the pandemic has brought to national attention — is critical to dismantling them.
This alarming lack of data about the spread of disease in prisons and jails has been a problem long before Covid-19. Even though incarcerated people and correctional staff have been vulnerable to infectious and communicable diseases because of overcrowded and unsanitary facilities — including previous outbreaks of influenza, H1N1 “swine flu,” tuberculosis, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — adequate data about the spread of these illnesses and the steps to contain them has never been publicly available. When data is released, it’s often with serious delays. The most recent nationwide data on mortality in correctional institutions, for example, is from 2016.

If Covid-19 data were being regularly collected and publicly reported, decision-makers at the federal, state and local level would have a more accurate understanding of the problems they face. This would allow them to make more informed decisions about how to allocate resources and implement policies to reduce the spread of the virus.

This could include shifting resources for treatment to the hardest-hit facilities, providing clearer information to incarcerated individuals and their families, as well as prison staff and the surrounding communities about the state of current outbreaks and the precautions needed to reduce them and taking steps to reduce prison and jail populations to prevent transmission due to extreme overcrowding.

Data collection and transparency is essential to flattening the Covid-19 curve everywhere — and that must include our prisons and jails. Plus, improving data-collection at these facilities during the pandemic will help them develop the tools and resources needed to address disease outbreaks in the future.

For far too long, incarcerated people have been thought of as separate from society and our nation has remained unconcerned about the people who live and work in these settings. This is wrong. It is our responsibility to ensure that incarcerated individuals and the staff who work in prisons and jails are adequately protected from this dangerous virus. Doing so starts with good, comprehensive data that will drive smart policy reform. The Covid-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act will do just that.


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