The States that Lead the Nation in COVID-19 Cases Are Hiding Their Prison Data
by Sharon Dolovich, Erika Tyagi, and Neal Marquez, UCLA COVID Behind Bars Project, August 20, 2021
When the pandemic hit, prison systems around the country started posting COVID-19 data for their facilities. This measure of transparency marked a striking departure from business as usual for American prisons, which typically operate behind a thick veil of secrecy, regardless of the public health import of what happens inside.
As we have reported over the past year, this data has been plagued by deep inadequacies. But the fact that it has been published at all seemed to indicate an unusual recognition on the part of correctional officials that the old impulse to obscure and conceal would no longer be acceptable—at least during the present crisis.
Yet now, as the Delta variant breaks hospitalization records in states across the country and vaccination rates among prison staff remain unconscionably low, some prison administrators appear to have decided that the toll COVID-19 is taking in their facilities, and the scale of continued outbreaks, is no longer information that the public needs to know. Despite growing case numbers in communities across the country, a number of carceral agencies had begun to roll back basic data reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in their facilities.
Now, it appears that an even more concerning trend has emerged: the corrections agencies that are located in states currently seeing the greatest surge in new cases are now the least transparent about the scope of COVID-19 infections and deaths inside their facilities.
Despite representing only 25% of the national population, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and Texas together account for half of all new cases and hospitalizations in the country as a whole. During one week in August, 2021, Florida alone had more cases than the 30 states with the lowest case rates combined, and Florida and Texas together now account for nearly 40% of new hospitalizations across the country.
Yet on June 2, the Florida Department of Corrections stopped reporting data on COVID-19 inside prisons, saying that the information was no longer “operationally necessary.” As a result, for more than two months, we have had no idea how many of the 80,000 people inside Florida’s prisons have tested positive or died of COVID-19—all while reports continue to emerge of hospitals overflowing across the state, along with new outbreaks and record-breaking case counts inside Florida’s jails.
The Florida Department of Corrections is by no means the only agency opting for concealment despite Delta-driven surges in their states. On June 19, The Texas Commission on Jail Standards stopped reporting data on new cases inside Texas jails—although at the time, there were 120 active infections among detainees and jail staff. Since then, news outlets have reported new outbreaks inside Texas jails, while health officials call the current surge “worse than anything the state has seen yet.”
On July 8, without explanation, the Louisiana Department of Corrections took down most of the information that the agency had previously been reporting on its online dashboard, including the number of people who have died from COVID-19 and the cumulative number of cases and tests administered. Meanwhile, hospitalizations in Louisiana hit record highs in August 2021, and the state reported the second highest single-day death total since the pandemic began.
On July 16, the Georgia Department of Corrections abruptly announced it would no longer report COVID-19 updates for the 47,000 people in its custody. Since then, doctors in the state have described the latest surge, in which cases have risen by over 70% in the last two weeks, as “out of control.” By way of justification, the Georgia DOC cited its “successful vaccination rates” —although at that point only 24% of prison staff across the state had reported having received a shot.
And while the Mississippi Department of Corrections has not officially announced it would stop reporting data altogether, the agency has not updated its COVID-19 dashboard since July 8. In mid August, health officials in Mississippi described the worsening situation in the state, warning that “[w]ithout a doubt we have surpassed our previous peaks by a substantial margin, and we expect to see that continue.”
These carceral agencies are notable for having become less transparent in recent weeks despite the surge in cases in their states. At the same time, in other jurisdictions with growing case counts, prison officials are maintaining the same levels of secrecy they have employed from the start, sticking to the same opacity and poor data reporting practices they have displayed since the pandemic began.
One such state is Arkansas, where health officials reported a new record for hospitalizations this week. The Arkansas Department of Corrections is one of just six state DOCs that has never publicly reported the number of incarcerated people who have died from COVID-19—although, according to data obtained by The Marshall Project, at least 52 people have died from the virus in the state’s prisons since March 2020.
Another is Texas. While the Texas Department of Criminal Justice officially reports 202 presumed or confirmed deaths from COVID-19 among incarcerated people, the Texas Justice Initiative examined the medical records of people who died in TDCJ custody since early 2020 and found that at least 278 people have died from COVID-19 inside Texas prisons, suggesting a striking 38% undercount in the officially reported numbers. Our own preliminary analysis of excess mortality in TDCJ facilities during the pandemic suggests the true figure may be much higher.
This deliberate cloaking of the reality on the ground is occurring despite the now overwhelming evidence that jails and prisons are COVID-19 hotspots and that outbreaks inside these facilities directly affect surrounding communities.
The lack of reliable data—or, in some especially opaque states, any data whatsoever—on new infections and deaths is the opposite of what is required for the latest wave of COVID-19 to be brought under control. It is also a reminder that, although prisons are nominally public institutions, prison officials still hold largely unchecked power to decide what the public is and is not allowed to know about what happens inside.
The past eighteen months have made clear what advocates and activists have long argued: jails, prisons, and detention centers are not isolated from their broader communities—and especially not during a pandemic. Every day, guards, medical staff, and incarcerated people move through facilities, and at the end of every shift, those who are free to leave return to their families and communities only to return the next day. Given the massive outbreaks inside carceral facilities during earlier waves of the pandemic and the science showing just how contagious the new Delta variant is, it would be dangerously misguided to think that the growing public health emergency in the states where Delta is surging is not affecting those inside jails and prisons.
Low vaccination rates among the staff who work in these facilities provide further grounds to fear that the agencies withholding data may be obscuring a growing crisis. In Alabama, just 23% of prison staff have reported receiving even one vaccine shot. It is not, however, an outlier: in Arkansas, that number is 47%; in Georgia, 25%; in Louisiana, 52%; in Nevada, 42%; and in Texas, 39%. These reported data may understate the true number who are vaccinated, as many agencies do not require employees to report shots received offsite. However, these data remain the only publicly available information—and if the true rates are indeed higher, agencies have an obligation to collect and report data on this critical public health measure. In some states, we have no sense at all as to staff vaccination rates; the DOCs in Florida and Mississippi, for example, have chosen to report no data at all on this issue.
The Florida Department of Corrections has said that the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, making this an appropriate moment for prison officials to pare back the data being reported or to stop reporting it altogether. These claims are rooted in dangerous fiction, and have no place in public health policy.
Instead of responding to the latest threat by doubling down on the public health strategies that have proven most effective—testing, tracing, isolating cases, vaccinating, and publicly reporting data to inform policy-making—we now see corrections agencies reverting to their longstanding resistance to transparency and accountability. Given what is happening with COVID-19 in these regions, these shifts in data reporting are almost certainly cloaking increased infections and preventable deaths among people who, whatever their crimes, were not sentenced to die in prison.
That prison officials should hide evidence of harm to those in their custody is nothing new—every day, in prisons across the country, incarcerated people suffer in ways the public never learns about. But this secrecy is precisely the problem. Prisons are public institutions, and in order to hold these agencies accountable, the public needs to know what happens inside their walls—at all times, and especially at this critical moment.
This article was originally published on August 20, 2021 at the blog of the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Project. Reprinted with permission. It can be found at uclacovidbehindbars.org/delta-surges-hiding-data