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About

The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, launched in March 2020, tracks the spread and impact of the novel coronavirus in American carceral facilities and advocates for greater transparency and accountability around the pandemic response of the carceral system.

Our team of 11 staff and more than 100 volunteer researchers gathers and presents data about COVID-19 in prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigration detention centers across the United States. We also collect information about pandemic-related prison and jail releases, legal filings and court orders bearing on the safety of incarcerated people, and grassroots organizing campaigns and fundraisers.

Our goals include:

  • Countering the invisibility of incarcerated people in the United States by making data about COVID-19 in facilities widely accessible and highlighting the need for improved reporting by federal, state, and local government agencies.
  • Providing data that will help advocates, journalists, and organizers as they push for the release of incarcerated people to allow for distancing and protect those who are especially vulnerable.
  • Holding carceral institutions accountable for implementing best practices in responding to public health crises, including infection screening and testing, treatment, sanitation, and reducing movement within and between facilities.
  • Partnering with other organizations and individuals collecting information about the pandemic in carceral facilities to provide additional context and promote meaningful analysis.
  • Aggregating and preserving as much data about the pandemic as possible for future study, because understanding what happened during this crisis will be vital to the urgent project of shrinking our country’s massive carceral footprint and ensuring the safety of those who remain inside.

Background

There are over two million people incarcerated in American prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigration detention centers. The overcrowding, grossly inadequate healthcare, and systemic neglect and violence within many of these institutions have long constituted a public health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic takes this crisis to a catastrophic level. It is nearly impossible for people in prisons and jails to maintain social distancing, residents and staff often lack the hygiene supplies they need to avoid infection, and people are constantly moving within and between facilities and communities. For a number of reasons, incarcerated people are also disproportionately likely to have underlying health conditions, putting them at greater risk of complications from COVID-19 than the general population. The most humane response to the pandemic is therefore to release as many people from custody as possible and push for better health and safety practices for those who remain incarcerated.

Making the case for mass releases and improved correctional practices requires evidence about current conditions inside. The historic lack of transparency around what happens within facility walls enables neglect and, ultimately, results in preventable deaths. Even when data are publicly available, they can be difficult to access or interpret. Advocates and organizers both inside and outside carceral facilities have long fought to expose the reality of carceral conditions to public view and called for widespread recognition of the humanity of the people locked inside. The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project builds on this foundation by responding to the urgent need to collect, share, and act on data related to COVID-19 in prisons and jails.

Our Work

Through a combination of web scraping and manual data collection, our team regularly updates our database with information about COVID-19 in prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigration detention centers across the United States.

We collect COVID-19-related data about:

  • Infections and deaths among incarcerated people and staff, at the facility level
  • Virus screening and testing
  • Prison and jail releases in response to the pandemic
  • Legal filings and court orders bearing on the safety of incarcerated people during the pandemic
  • Grassroots organizing campaigns and fundraisers
  • Pandemic-related policies and conditions inside facilities

The UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project is also currently engaged in qualitative investigations of the impacts of COVID-19 in carceral systems across the country as well as in pandemic-related corrections policy analysis.

Our generous supporters include:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Vital Projects Fund
  • Arnold Ventures

Our collaborators include:

  • Prison Policy Initiative
  • Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Bronx Defenders
  • Columbia Law School
  • Zealous Institute
  • Mourning Our Losses
  • Otay Mesa Detention Resistance
  • Davis Vanguard