February 24th, 2023Sharon Dolovich and Aaron Littman

COVID to Carceral Mortality Project Transition Letter

Dear friends,

From the outset of the COVID pandemic, it was clear that people incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers faced an outsized risk of infection and death, and that carceral institutions, dangerous on a normal day, would soon become much deadlier. In March 2020, we launched the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project with no real plan—just the recognition of an urgent need for a centralized resource to track the impact of COVID on those living and working in custody.

Thanks to the generous support of our early funders, we quickly grew into a small but dedicated team of amazing staff and volunteers and began collaborating closely with inspiring colleagues around the country. Our data has been used in efforts by litigators and activists, policymakers, journalists, academics, and other stakeholders to make sense of and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on incarcerated people and carceral institutions. We are proud that our work has supported efforts to save lives and helped to reframe incarceration as a threat to public health.

The pandemic is not over and the conditions that led to the crisis remain largely unchanged: overcrowding, poor quality of and limited access to healthcare, systemic neglect and violence, lack of transparency, and more. Despite this, twenty-five states and D.C. have stopped reporting data about COVID cases behind bars, and other jurisdictions have reduced the amount of data they report. In recognition of the shrinking size of the available data and the progressively worsening quality of the data that is still being reported, we have decided to stop our web-scraping operation. We conducted our final scraper run on January 17, 2023. Our historical data can be accessed on our website, Github, and long-term archive.

Today, we are announcing the next phase of our project, as we become the Behind Bars Data Project and transition our focus to all-cause deaths in U.S. prisons. After its 2019 report, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data collection and publication program went from inadequate to non-existent. As a consequence, the public lacks access to even the most basic facts about mortality behind bars: how many people die in state and federal prisons each year, and in which facilities these deaths occur. Nor are we able to answer other crucial questions: including who is dying in prison and why, what racial disparities exist in mortality outcomes, and, ultimately, what those officials who run the country’s prisons can do to reduce preventable deaths and improve conditions inside.

On Feburary 19, 2023, we launched our nationwide carceral mortality database alongside a major New York Times investigation relying on our data to show that the mortality rate in U.S. prisons increased 61% from 2019 to 2020. Sixteen state prison systems saw their crude mortality rates increase at least 90% from 2019 to 2020. Our database is the country’s most comprehensive public resource regarding prison deaths—from all causes—nationwide. For more information, check out our blog post introducing the database and explaining why we decided to start tracking all-cause mortality in prisons.

We will continue to share our plans for this next stage in our work and, as ever, we welcome your ideas and any opportunities to collaborate. We are forever grateful for the remarkable contributions of our remarkable staff and the many dedicated volunteers—numbering well over 300—who contributed to our work since we first launched in March 2020. We look forward to remaining in conversation with all of you.


Sharon Dolovich and Aaron Littman

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Why Texas is a Model for Death-in-Custody Data Reporting

Many states fail to report public data on deaths that occur in government custody. Meanwhile, Texas has been the national model in transparent death-in-custody reporting for decades.