August 4th, 2022Sharon Dolovich

Notes on Incomplete Datasets From the Project’s Early Days

From the outset of the pandemic, it was obvious that people incarcerated in prisons, jails and detention centers faced outsized risk of COVID infection and death. Advocates immediately mobilized, petitioning any and all state actors with the power of release to use that power to the greatest possible extent.

In those early pandemic days, it was already clear that information sharing would be crucial. Time was short, and advocates needed a way to access each other’s work product and learn what was happening in real time in jurisdictions across the country.

Without any real plan, I and colleagues at UCLA School of Law stepped in to fill the breach. We created an open-source spreadsheet where people could post their legal briefs and demand letters and follow what was happening elsewhere.

Very quickly, our Google Sheet became a one-stop shop for data concerning COVID behind bars. We had started by tracking the suspension of visits in prisons around the country. Then our team grew, with volunteers from around the country stepping up to fill out aspects of the data set we hadn’t even had a chance to recognize as gaps that needed filling. Among other things, for the first four months of the pandemic, volunteers Grace DiLaura UCLAW ’12 and Kalind Parish daily visited the website of every state prison, the federal BOP, and any jail system posting data, and copied their COVID data into our centralized spreadsheet.

Eventually, with the generous support of David Menschel and the Vital Project Funds, we were able to hire a staff and officially created the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project.

Many of the data sets we began crafting in those early days continued to grow and have ultimately proved crucial to efforts by advocates, journalists, activists, academics and other stakeholders to make sense of the impact of COVID on people in custody and on the people who work in carceral settings. These data have been incorporated into our interactive website and are available on our github.

But not all our initial data-gathering efforts had staying power. As we shifted our efforts to where they seemed most urgent, some categories of data created early on remained in stasis on our spreadsheet, an occasional source of puzzlement but mostly ignored.

Recently, we looked back at these data sets and realized that, although they are far from comprehensive, each contains information that might prove useful to researchers investigating various aspects of the early impact of the pandemic on the lives of people in custody.

We have therefore decided to publish them, as is, on UCLA’s Dataverse, a centralized repository for archiving and sharing research data. We offer them, not as complete data sets—which, save the one on prison visiting cancellation policies, they most assuredly are not—but as potentially meaningful pieces of our early data-gathering effort that as such belong in the world.

Although our earliest motivation was to support advocates for the incarcerated during the pandemic, as our efforts grew into the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, we quickly developed a secondary mission: to create an archive for future research into the impact of COVID on those incarcerated in American prisons, jails, and detention centers. This mission was motivated by a simple idea: 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. Despite being incomplete, each of our fledgling data sets offers a window, however narrow, into an early aspect of the story of COVID behind bars.

Here, I offer a brief primer into each of these data sets to guide potential users. 

  • Correctional Population Reduction Requests: This data set was the origin point of the Data Project, created so that during the early days of the pandemic advocates could share their work and see what others were writing in their legal filings, demand letters, petitions, etc. The targets of these efforts represented the broad sweep of public officials with authority over releases, including governors, sheriffs, prosecutors, state courts, federal courts, and probation chiefs. Our initial spreadsheet tab quickly became full of many different kinds of work product directed to the various, different authorities, so we soon decided to break it out into separate tabs. This was the origin of, among other datasets, COVID-19 Jail Releases and COVID-19 Prison Releases (both initially helmed by Maddy deLone), and our COVID-19-Related Legal Filings and Court Orders database, which eventually grew into a collaboration of UCLAW, Columbia Law School, zealous and Bronx Defenders and is now available on the Health Is Justice Litigation Hub. (This database will soon be moving to the COVID Behind Bars Data Project website).
  • Corrections Population Reduction Responses: Soon after we began posting advocates’ filings, those advocates began receiving answers of various sorts. We created this tab to post those answers. Once we decided to break out the answers into separate tabs, this tab was no longer used.
  • Visitation Policy by State (Prisons): This data set was originally just a list created by my research assistant, Keegan Hawkins UCLAW ’21, in early March 2020 when prison systems around the country began to cancel visits. When we launched our open-source spreadsheet, this tab sat alongside Correctional Population Reduction Requests. We ultimately filled out the details, so this database is complete: it tracks the dates and details of the visitation cancellation policies adopted at the outbreak of COVID-19 in all 50 state prison systems plus the federal BOP.
  • Related Immigration Filings: Early in the pandemic, Theresa Cheng and Joanne Choi joined the project as co-leads of our Immigration Detention Team. In addition to tracking COVID cases and deaths in ICE facilities (an effort that has since been folded into our core data collection), they initially sought to create a data set of court filings related to COVID in immigration detention. For a variety of reasons, it proved very hard to get details on case filings. In addition to standard legal research techniques, efforts included general outreach to advocates with requests for case information, along with targeted outreach to law professors running immigration clinics. Ultimately, we realized that we would be unable to achieve anything like a comprehensive data set. Still, given the challenge of identifying court cases in this space, we thought it worth making available the information on the cases the Immigration Detention Team was able to identify. Additional immigration-detention related filings are also available as part of our Health Is Justice Litigation Hub.
  • Related Youth Filings and Court Orders. Yasmine Tager, the founding lead of our Youth Facilities Team, also sought to create a data set of court filings related to COVID in youth facilities, in part through the same strategies pursued by the Immigration Detention Team. Although the data set in its current form is not comprehensive, here too we thought it was sufficiently rich to be worth publishing.
  • Fundraisers and Mutual Aid Efforts: This data set was initially launched by Jordan Palmer, UCLAW ’21, who served as the first team lead of our Grassroots and Other Organizing Team. In investigating grassroots actions undertaken by incarcerated people and their loved ones and communities to draw attention to the plight of people in custody during COVID, Jordan came across many postings for fundraisers and other relief efforts on behalf of the incarcerated. Given the traffic that our spreadsheet was attracting, we decided to create this data set as a resource for those users wishing to contribute to these campaigns.
  •  Jail/Prison Conditions Policies: Initially, we thought it would be useful to create a place where people could share details as to what was happening in the facilities in their jurisdictions. This effort quickly proved futile, given the sheer number of carceral settings and the rapidity with which things were changing on the ground. We readily ceded the challenge of portraying the concrete reality of custody during COVID to the many heroic journalists and organizers who focused their efforts in this direction, and turned our attention to collecting and posting the available quantitative data on COVID testing, infections and deaths in prison, jails and detention centers around the country. The few entries in this early dataset reveal a very small slice of the institutional realities for those trapped in carceral facilities in the first weeks of the pandemic. In addition, with the leadership of Grace DiLaura,, we ultimately captured and coded nearly 3,500 COVID policies issued by corrections agencies from April 2020-April 2021. That dataset, the Prison Policy Index, is available on our website.

Over the coming months, we will be posting on UCLA’s Dataverse the rest of the project’s databases.  While we have always ensured that our data is publicly available via our Github and/or website, the Dataverse will serve long-term as a one-stop shop for all the data related to COVID and incarceration we have collected since March 2020.

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August 4th, 2022Joshua Manson

Sentencing Commission Data Provides Comprehensive Confirmation of Paltry Compassionate Release Rates During the Pandemic

In May of this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its latest data report, revealing disturbing trends in federal courts’ responses to compassionate release motions filed in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, as well as equally troubling explanations for those trends.