August 27th, 2021Michael Everett

How We Utilize Public Records Requests to Obtain the Data Carceral Agencies Don’t Report

Throughout the pandemic, while tracking COVID data from carceral systems across the country, we have continually called attention to the lack of transparency in the data they post regarding the health and safety of incarcerated people. As the virus has infected and killed so many people confined in all kinds of facilities — more than 2,700 so far in prisons alone — carceral agencies have refused to reveal the true toll of the virus, preventing basic public oversight of their operations and inhibiting broader public health responses to the pandemic.

In some instances, agencies report data that is difficult to interpret, analyze, or understand without additional context. In others, agencies report data that we have reason to believe is unreliable. And in too many cases, agencies outright refuse to publish certain basic health data altogether.

In June 2020, the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project established a public records investigative team to fill in the data gaps we identified and to document barriers to obtaining this essential information. For over a year, this team has utilized state and federal public records statutes to request and collect pandemic-related data from a range of carceral agencies. 

In this work, we have been guided by two primary aims: (1) to build out national databases that enhance the public’s capacity to conduct independent oversight of U.S. carceral agencies and (2) to evaluate the comparative transparency of state and federal agencies by identifying which records and data they maintain and how they maintain them.

Over the last year, we have filed more than 600 requests for data on numerous metrics relating to COVID in detention, including the numbers of infections, deaths, tests administered, and vaccinations. We have also sought basic oversight information related to prison management, including facility-level population data, design capacity, and staffing levels, where that information is not publicly available or regularly updated. We have received hundreds of documents in response to these requests.

We generally request data at the facility level and over time since March 2020 (or, in the case of vaccination data, since the time each agency began administering vaccinations). In our Data Reporting & Quality Scorecards, we’ve highlighted why these data are critical to understanding the scope and impact of the pandemic behind bars, and why it is essential that carceral agencies make these records available to the public. 

We have also sent requests for official agency pandemic policies; although agencies and staff do not always follow their own formal policies, the public must know what those policies are, on paper, in order to assess agency responses to the pandemic inside their own facilities.

In each case, our requests were made pursuant to public records laws in each jurisdiction. While many agencies have been responsive and cooperative with our requests, many others have refused to provide us with this critical health data, even as they remove public COVID dashboards while the Delta variant causes case surges

Time after time, the public entities from which we have sought records have stymied our efforts, citing legal exceptions, high costs, and other obstacles. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS), for example, refused to provide us with facility-level population data, claiming that such basic data would constitute a “detailed security plan.” The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) estimated it would cost $9,500 to even begin extracting historical COVID data from their records to correct their error-ridden public data. When we requested historical versions of previously released facility-level COVID data from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, the agency denied our request and replied that they “do not maintain data in that fashion.”

Others have denied us access to COVID data because of claims of pending litigation, or because such documents constitute “preliminary notes.” And some have refused to provide information on official COVID policies either because the agency has no policies, or because the agency believes providing them would violate security protocols.

Below are the approval and denial rates for several categories of core COVID data we have requested from state correctional agencies, as of mid-August 2021. 

Requested DataRequests Sent% Granted% Granted in Part% Pending% Denied
Incarcerated Population4468.24.520.56.8
COVID-19 cases4632.647.810.98.7
All-cause deaths5084.02.08.06.0
Pandemic policies4450.018.220.411.4
Tests administered4839.627.122.910.4
Vaccination4316.351.227.84.6
* Pending requests include those for which we are awaiting a response from the agency or for which we are in the process of obtaining responsive documents. 
* * Requests that were "Granted in Part" are requests for which the agency positively replied with a document but that document was not entirely responsive to our request. Examples include unusable or incomplete data.

We believe that these denials are inconsistent, overbroad, and, in some instances, specious pretexts to avoid compliance with basic transparency obligations. Frequently, agencies have denied us information that their peer agencies readily provided. In some cases, after an agency has denied our request for data, we have noticed the agency later posting the same information on its website, sometimes with much more detail than we originally requested. 

While we continue to request more data and analyze responses, we plan to develop a public archive of the COVID-related documents we have gathered. As a project committed to data transparency and to public oversight of the criminal legal system, we believe it is essential that the public have access to necessary information revealing the spread and impact of COVID-19 behind bars. When agencies refuse to provide that data, we will continue to pursue it.

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September 1st, 2021Marjorie Naila Segule

The Vaccine Rollout Is Leaving Behind Incarcerated Children

Record numbers of children are being hospitalized for COVID-19 across the country. But still, children who are incarcerated or held in state custody are being left behind in the vaccine rollout.