January 31st, 2022
Data Project Publishes Database With Thousands of Prison Policy Changes Throughout the Pandemic
Throughout the pandemic, incarcerated people have faced disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality. While enduring the pandemic, however, they have also encountered changes to facility policies and procedures that have been unpredictable and, in some cases, personally devastating.
As case rates have fluctuated, carceral facilities have responded by altering their operations in a number of ways. As a result, daily life has been dramatically altering for people inside. In some cases, internal operating procedures have been tweaked, halting new intakes and transfers or suspending rare opportunities for socialization, including through programming and visitation. Other policy changes have related to epidemiological measures that facilities took to slow the spread of the virus, including providing personal protective equipment and vaccines or implementing quarantine and isolation protocols.
Early in the pandemic, our Data Team developed a protocol for identifying and archiving written policies posted from the outset of the pandemic on the websites of state prison agencies and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. By the summer of 2020, they were joined by a team of volunteers coding those policies. Policies were collected from prison agency websites from April 2020 through April 2021, but included information posted before April 2020.
Our filterable Policy Index includes nearly 3,500 policy announcements from all fifty state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with links to each official policy announcement. Our index organizes these policies by topic, with categories including facility operations, testing, staff, visitation policies, and vaccination.
Some of the restrictions and operational changes these policies reflect have likely been warranted and effective in preventing wider transmission of COVID-19. Others may have been overly punitive and outlasted the threat they were ostensibly implemented to address. Either way, we believe that the policy record constitutes critical data revealing the impact of COVID-19 on the millions of people living behind bars in the United States.
Lastly, we emphasize that policy announcements do not necessarily reflect policy implementation or realities. That a given policy exists in our index is evidence only that the policy was announced and not that it was followed. The Policy Index records state and federal prison officials’ public accounting of their responses to the COVID-19 threat inside their facilities.
Today, we are making this index public. Our hope is that it will serve as a valuable resource for advocates, journalists, scholars, and others.
You can view the database, as well as documents with FAQs and topic definitions, here.
The Omicron variant is causing COVID case surges in prisons across the country, with some facilities seeing their highest infection rates ever. State and federal agencies must double down on efforts to prevent and control outbreaks behind bars.