October 20th, 2022Josephine Wang

Reflecting on the Power of Grassroots Activism During the Pandemic

Over the past two and a half years, the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project’s Grassroots volunteer team collected data about grassroots organizing efforts—activism planned by, for, and with incarcerated people to address pandemic-related carceral conditions that threatened their health and safety. We collected these data from social media platforms and news media, and by word of mouth. In August of 2021, UCLA Law graduate and previous Grassroots team lead Cecilia Bobbitt wrote a blog post introducing our work. Since over a year has passed, we wanted to highlight our additions to the now completed dataset. 

The efforts we documented were initiated by incarcerated people and their families, community activists, nonprofits, and others. They occurred all over the country, beginning when the pandemic commenced in March 2020 and we tracked them through the end of our data collection in December 2021. After we had compiled our dataset, we reviewed each of the grassroots organizing efforts we had documented individually to ensure that we had an up-to-date record of any actions taken as a result. For example, we were able to document an April 2020 car rally in Illinois hosted by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, and other local organizations fighting towards accelerated releases in Cook County Jail. From this car rally as well as other grassroots efforts, the Cook County Jail population decreased from over 5,600 detainees to 4,100 detainees by the end of April. 

In early July 2022, we archived our dataset of 266 grassroots organizing efforts on the UCLA Dataverse, a centralized repository for archiving and sharing research data. We also created an additional resources page, which includes a list of go-to resources relied on in grassroots organizing efforts throughout the pandemic, categorized into the following: advocacy (resources for prisoner advocates, as well as links to connect/contribute to other advocacy groups); legal(litigation-related resources); government (documents and websites outlining official COVID safety guidelines, regulations, and policies for correctional facilities); and Informational (other databases, trackers, and academic reports about COVID and carceral settings).

One of the initial goals of this dataset was to uplift those fighting for public health interventions like mass release. As an archive of empirical information from the pandemic, the completed dataset can now be utilized to support current activists in their continued fights for decarceration and improved carceral conditions by providing a history of past actions to build on. We also hope that this dataset can be a resource for future research projects.

Now that the work of Grassroots team1 has come to a close, I have taken the time to reflect on the work that was done and what potential next steps could be. I grew with the project, from a volunteer in my sophomore year of college to a staff role as the project coordinator. Though my work with the Project has largely concluded, it has left me inspired to attend law school. Coming of age during the pandemic and throughout this project, I witnessed the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, the #metoo movement, and other major social movements that advocate for marginalized communities and fight to make our country a more equitable place. On our team, we witnessed the positive impact that grassroots activism and community organizing efforts had on incarcerated people during the pandemic, leaving me hopeful for continued change. But there is still a long way to go; now more than ever, it is important to support the fight for public health rather than criminalization during these unprecedented times.

  1. The Grassroots and Other Covid-19 Organizing Efforts Dataset was made possible by the volunteer work of Cecilia Bobbitt, Jordan Palmer, Josephine Wang, Benito Guijarro, Samuel LeBarron, Taylor Fox, Jessica Vived, Dhruv Patel, Samantha Chung, Mika Lavandero, Hadley Levenson, Blayne Suttonwills II, Anthony Jones, Brisely Martinez, Callie Ward, Mikaela Lavandero, Taylor Fox, Sara Zuckerman, Alejandro Santana, Hunter Nagai, Jordan Nagai, Evie Zavidow, Fátima Avellán.

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October 31st, 2022UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project Team

The Federal Government Doesn’t Know How Many People Died in Prison Since the Pandemic Began

This fall, we’ll publish a nationwide death-in-prison database. The database will serve as a partial replacement for—and, in significant ways, improvement upon—the reporting that the Department of Justice has effectively ended.