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Pennsylvania: Flawed COVID Data

by Jayson Hawkins 

For the millions of Americans with loved ones behind bars, information posted online by the prison systems often provides the only inkling of what is happening inside the walls on a day­to-day basis. Never has this been more true than during the pandemic. But what happens when that data is flawed?

“I check every chance I get and the information is so incorrect,” said Sharon Murchison, who has two brothers and a husband locked up in Pennsylvania. “I can recall going back and forth and looking at it and going, ‘Something is off.’“

Analyses of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ counts of COVID-19 tests given and deaths revealed that the numbers reported were often significantly altered without explanation. The fluctuations were independently confirmed by Spotlight PA and Hope Johnson of UCLA’s COVID Behind Bars Project.

“It’s one thing to have little mistakes here and there,” Johnson said, “but if it’s month after month and there’s many data reporting problems, it definitely causes me pause.”

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged the past problems, announcing at the end of January 2021 that the COVID statistics would be pulled offline for a month so the DDC’s data science experts could evaluate the numbers.

“Our office of Research and Statistics is taking over the daily management of the dashboard and they will be doing a deep dive into what is being collected and haw best to communicate that information,” said Maria Bivens, a DOC spokesperson.

Overall, the Pennsylvania DOC is considered above average in transparency compared to other states. While same experts have found the flawed data adequate for certain ends, others have pointed to a double standard of accuracy when it came to recording public numbers versus prison ones.

“There are certain individuals who don’t care that the data is crap. And that they’re dying in the prison system,” said state Sen. Katie Muth. “They’re fine letting that happen.”

The DOC had reported over 100 deaths combined between prisoners and employees by the end of January 2021. Positive cases exceeded 13,000, though both those numbers had decreased several times without explanation. In response to an inquiry by Spotlight PA in December 2020, a spokesperson for the DOC stated that the data dashboard reflected how many prisoners had been tested rather that the number of tests given; however, that total was around 63,000 in late January, and the DOC stated its inmate population had been under 41,000 at the close of 2020. Officials could not account for the difference of more than 20,000 prisoners in less than a month.

Discrepancies in the state’s data have allowed proponents both for and against releasing prisoners to reduce coronavirus risks to argue their case. Bret Bucklen, the DDC’s lead data analyst, posted to Twitter on Jan. 7 that “several data points ... suggest that in PA prison is safer than the community from COVID.”

Using the same numbers, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel urged Senate Democrats to continue thinning out the prison population until safer conditions prevailed. Wetzel told a committee hearing that had it not been for the 6,500 prisoners released so far, “these numbers of deaths and infections would be significantly worse. But let me be very clear, we need further population reduction.”

Due to early parole and preprieve//what is that word supposed to be?// restrictions, Wetzel said the ratio of medically vulnerable prisoners had actually increased, leaving almost half the state’s incarcerated at risk of dying if they contract CDVID-19.

Regardless of how trustworthy the data might be, advocates and some legislators continued to stress one point—the pandemic presents a serious threat to those behind bars, and not taking action to mitigate its dangers would put even more lives on the line.



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