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Joshua Manson • April 15th, 2021

Data Projects Submit Joint Testimony to Congress on the Bureau of Prisons’ Mismanagement of the Pandemic in Federal Prisons

This morning (April 15, 2021), the Senate Judiciary Committee held an oversight hearing to question Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal about, among other topics, his agency’s poor management of COVID-19 in its facilities. 

Ahead of the questioning, the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project submitted joint testimony, co-written with the COVID Prison Project and the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the University of Texas at Austin, highlighting the agency’s failures throughout the pandemic, including its poor data collection and reporting practices. 

As of the beginning of this week, according to the BOP’s data, 244 people have died of COVID-19 in its custody. Tens of thousands more have been infected, but because of the agency’s misleading data reporting practices, we do not know exactly how many. The BOP reports that 46,199 people currently in its custody have tested positive for COVID-19, but the total number of people who have tested positive while in BOP custody throughout the pandemic (including those who have been released) is likely substantially higher. 

The testimony calls attention to the scope of the BOP’s mismanagement: according to the agency’s own data, in 30 federal prisons across the country, more than 50% of people currently incarcerated have been infected. In 55 federal prisons, more than 33% of people currently incarcerated have been infected. In January 2021, the active infection rate in federal prisons was more than five times that of the country’s overall population. 

We also highlight the BOP’s failure to take basic public health measures as urged by public health and legal experts, most notably substantial reductions in the number of people incarcerated. The agency approved only 156 of the 10,940 applications submitted for compassionate release (many more, though still only a small fraction of all those who applied, have been granted compassionate release by the federal courts, following BOP denials). The agency’s total incarcerated population has fallen just 11 percent during the pandemic, from slightly over 175,000 in January 2020 to around 155,500 by September 2020. 

Lastly, the statement outlines a number of ways in which the BOP fails to make public crucial health information related to COVID-19 among people in its custody. The agency fails to report a number of key data variables, including the number of COVID-19 tests administered to both the incarcerated and staff populations inside each facility, the number of staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 at each facility, and the number of people who have received only the first in a series of vaccine doses. Moreover, there is reason to question the integrity of the data it does present. We and others have recently highlighted illogical and unexplained drops in both the numbers of people who have been infected with and died from COVID-19 in federal facilities. 

Without this crucial data, policymakers and the general public are unable to confidently track COVID-19 outbreaks in the facilities in which their loved ones, neighbors, and constituents live and work, nor assess risks of community spread to surrounding communities, nor evaluate facility responses.

We call on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to: 

  • Take meaningful steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of people who live and work in its prisons;
  • Reduce population levels by continuing and expanding the use of home confinement and compassionate release to the maximum extent possible; 
  • Expedite access to vaccines and relevant educational material for incarcerated people and proactively encourage uptake among staff; 
  • Improve data reporting processes by publishing historical time-series data on all essential metrics, and immediately reporting true cumulative infection and death counts in all BOP facilities. 

The joint testimony is available here: 

Video of this morning’s hearing is available here:

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UPDATE: Data Reporting & Quality Scorecard, Round 2

In March, we released our Data Reporting & Quality Scorecards assessing the transparency of each of the 53 major state and federal agencies. On April 12th, we reassessed the scores and grades for each agency. In the first round of assessments, 75% of correctional agencies received an F. In this round, 81% of agencies did.

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