Some States Are Cloaking Prison COVID Data

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prison hallway (txking/Shutterstock.com)

Some states are cloaking prison COVID data

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a public dashboard showing the status of COVID-19 in its prisons, including a tally of those who have died. Earlier this week, that number stood at 173 confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

The dashboard links to a list of names that ends with the Jan. 19 death of a 69-year-old serving a life sentence for murder, leaving the impression that no one has died of COVID-19 at a state prison since then.

But that’s not the case. Two incarcerated patients died Oct. 6, bringing the total COVID-19 deaths in state prisons to 295, according to the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that collects its data from reports sent by corrections officials to the attorney general.

Why the state reports one set of numbers to the public and another to its attorney general isn’t clear, said Eva Ruth Moravec, executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative. “It says where their priority is. If it was important to be transparent with the public, it would be on the public-facing dashboard.”

Texas is not the only state that has failed to consistently report COVID-19 cases and deaths in state prisons, local jails and juvenile detention facilities. While most corrections systems have never provided a great deal of information about the spread of the virus in their institutions, lately it has gotten worse, researchers say.

At least a half-dozen states, including Florida and Georgia as well as Texas, provide even less information than they once did, according to researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles’ COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which collects and analyzes data on the pandemic in corrections settings.

In an online post in late August, the project noted that while prison reporting had been “plagued by deep inadequacies” since the start of the pandemic, corrections systems cut back even more on public data in recent months. This happened even though prisons, like nursing homes, have been particularly susceptible to deadly outbreaks of the virus.

Agencies “had begun to roll back basic data reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in their facilities,” the authors wrote of a trend they detected beginning last spring. They characterize the drift as “a deliberate cloaking of the reality on the ground.”

States that have explained why they cut back on public data mostly say they stopped providing more detailed reports because of a decline in cases, even though they began making the change before this summer’s surge of the delta variant. Texas said its numbers are delayed because it waits for autopsy results, while Louisiana said the hours spent reporting data took time away from caring for patients.

The Behind Bars authors said the states have stopped publishing information on the number of cases, tests performed, deaths and vaccinations, both among inmates and staff. Some have stopped providing cumulative totals in those categories. Other researchers have found that hardly any prison systems publish demographic information, which would show the age, ethnicity and race of prison populations who have been the most vulnerable.

The UCLA project reported that in addition to Texas, prison systems in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi also have cut back on information that they had earlier provided about COVID-19 in their prisons. It noted that Arkansas has never disclosed the number of incarcerated people who have died of the virus. Meanwhile, the project observed that, like Texas, all those states were especially hard hit by the delta variant this summer.

‘Sort of gave up’

“I think probably there is a disincentive for them to report because the worse the pandemic deaths, the more it will be used against them,” said Erika Tyagi, a senior data scientist with the Behind Bars Data Project. “I think they thought, why are we giving data that the public will use against us? It’s bleak, but they sort of gave up.” Tyagi said Massachusetts and Oklahoma also have cut back on data reporting since the project published.

The Florida Department of Corrections did not respond directly to Stateline questions about its data, but it defended its treatment of sick patients and said all prisoners are offered vaccines. However, earlier this summer, the department acknowledged to the Orlando Sentinel that as of June 2 it had stopped posting weekly reports on COVID-19 cases and deaths among inmates and staff, determining that it was no longer “operationally necessary.”

In July, the Georgia Department of Corrections announced it was no longer reporting COVID-19 data on its website, citing a downturn of cases at the time. “Should significant fluctuations occur in the status of COVID-19 cases with our facilities, the dashboard will be reinstated,” Joan Heath, a department spokesperson, wrote in an email to Stateline.

In Texas, the public list of names from corrections officials indicates that zero incarcerated people died of COVID-19 from January through this month—even though nearly half of the total COVID-19 deaths among all Texans happened in that same period, as the highly contagious delta variant was running amok.

In response to a query from Stateline about the discrepancies between the number of deaths reported by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the number reported by the Texas Justice Initiative, agency spokesperson Robert Hurst said deaths were counted on the dashboard only after an autopsy or physician determined COVID-19 was the cause of death.

GCN: Data & Analytics source|articles

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