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Criminal Justice Reform Series [Part II]: An Interview with Sharon Dolovich

White woman smiling. She is wearing grey blazer and a black shirt. Tree in the background

In this installment of our criminal justice reform series, we meet Sharon Dolovich, Professor of law and Director of the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program. Professor Dolovich started the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, which has aggregated Department of Corrections data concerning the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people. The data covers infection rates and deaths in state and federal prisons as well as jails nationwide. She has written extensively about the role of decarceration in dedensifying prisons and jails and mitigating the risk of COVID-19 to incarcerated people. In 2005, Cornell University’s Ethics and Public Life Program bestowed its Young Scholar Award upon her. 

Alexandra Vitkin: What were the origins of the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project? 

Sharon Dolovich: I didn’t decide to start the project—it really just happened. At the beginning of the pandemic, the people who I work with on issues of incarceration started to realize the outsize threat that the virus posed to incarcerated people, so there was a mobilization in the prisoner’s rights community to protect incarcerated people from the virus. 

Incarcerated people live in crowded conditions, so they can’t properly social distance. They didn’t necessarily have access to masks. And even if they did, they couldn’t ensure that the people in close proximity to them—other incarcerated people and correctional officers—were wearing masks. Additionally, prisons have lousy healthcare. Due to this poor healthcare incarcerated people age faster, so there’s a high percentage of people who have comorbidities that the CDC warned from the outset of the pandemic would negatively affect one’s chance of survival if one contracted COVID-19. 

Advocates reached out to public officials to demand action to mitigate the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated people. The primary demand was population reductions in prisons and jails nationwide. I am part of a prisoners’ rights Listserv, which is the online community of the prisoners’ rights bar, and one of my colleagues asked if I could create an open-source spreadsheet that would allow us to post our filings, so we could share work. Initially, I kept track of visitation cancellations, which was the first policy the Departments of Corrections adopted to respond to the pandemic. There was one week in March when all the Departments of Corrections canceled visits, so I said to my research assistant (RA): “Hey, can you keep track of this for me? I feel like this is significant.” He had created a spreadsheet, so I suggested we make it a shared spreadsheet where anybody could fill in what was happening with visits in their jurisdictions. 

AV: The data project encompasses everything from releases to vaccination rates. How did the spreadsheet grow from solely keeping track of visitation cancellations? 

SD: People started sharing the document, and I’d get emails from people who had seen it and were saying things like “I see you’re not tracking releases. Can I help you with that?” or “I see you’re not tracking COVID-19 in youth facilities. Can I help you with that?” I’d put these people in touch with my RA, and he’d work with them on creating columns to code for these other categories. 

The other thing that happened at the end of March 2020 was that the Department of Corrections started posting data to their websites listing the number of tests conducted, confirmed COVID-19 infections, and people who had died. This publication of information is incredibly unusual in the prison world; corrections data is usually assumed to be proprietary. Due to the amount of attention that was being paid not just to COVID-19, but to COVID-19 in prisons, there was pressure on the Departments of Corrections to make some of their data public. The quality of this data is questionable. We have a transparency and quality scorecard that we use to grade data, and about 83% of the agencies we graded failed. 

AV: How did prisons “locking down” in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus affect your ability to access data about what was happening on the inside? 

SD: That’s a great question. The data that we are gathering and posting is only the official data [released by the Department of Corrections]. From the beginning, I’ve said that the data is not to be treated as trustworthy. I view the data sets as floors, not ceilings. 

Your question about how lockdown would affect our data collection suggests that there would be insider information that we might be able to get from incarcerated people if only we had more access to them, and that is absolutely right. From the vantage point of incarcerated people, however, they couldn’t give us a bird’s eye view, but they could certainly tell us what was happening on the ground. 

What we have relied on is the remarkable reporting that’s covered the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. So what we do is compare what we know from the officially reported numbers with what we are hearing from journalists concerning what’s actually happening. For example, correctional facilities have been saying that they are providing incarcerated people with clean masks and soap, keeping people socially distanced, and quarantining sick individuals; in reality, none of that is happening. 

AV: You’ve written a lot about decarceration, and it seems like there was a movement in some jurisdictions to do so. Do you think this momentum can be sustained beyond the end of the pandemic?

SD: If you’d asked me that question in mid-May 2020, I would’ve said: “Oh my God, there is so much momentum.” That is no longer the case. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, we saw that when push comes to shove, we can decarcerate pretty rapidly. In real time, it was impossible to tell what the total impact was, but the Vera Institute of Justice has since published official data about the drop in the incarceration rate. It compared 2019 incarceration rates to 2020 incarceration from January through June to track COVID-19 decarceration. The national population of people in jails dropped 24% between January and June. In prisons, that decrease was 9%. Between June and December of 2020, there was another 5% drop in prisons, and in jails there was a total reversal to pre-pandemic levels of incarceration. I view those early releases as the system admitting that, at a minimum, we have no business incarcerating 24% of people in jail and 9% of people in prison. If you can release incarcerated people  that quickly, you’re acknowledging that they don’t actually have to be in prison, and we should be asking why they were there in the first place. 

AV: Why did the momentum towards mass release of incarcerated people slow? 

SD: I think the reason why the momentum slowed was a combination of political indifference and the courts. The courts made it clear that there was not going to be constitutional liability for failure to protect incarcerated people during this period. If we are going to push decarceration based on what we saw last year, it’s going to have to be because there is explicit public recognition of the fact that we are incarcerating people we don’t need to incarcerate. The public must also demand that we immediately release everybody who can be safely released. 

Politics also play a large role in the lack of momentum towards mass release. In state prisons nationwide, most of the  incarcerated population is people who are elderly and/or medically compromised. For example, in California at the beginning of the pandemic there were 17,000 incarcerated people who the CDC characterized as most vulnerable to COVID-19. This population has aged out of crime. People tend to enter prison when they’re young, so the vast majority of this population will have been in prison for decades and will have already served more time than people in most other Western countries would have served for the same crimes. 

Incarcerated people are not going to be public safety threats, so why not release them? We saw that governors with the clemency power to release people refused to do so. Why? I was on the phone with someone in the Governor’s office, in a state that shall not be named, who said, “Look, we know that these people don’t need to be incarcerated, and we should be releasing them to protect them from COVID-19, but we can’t release them because politically, it would be a disaster.”

AV: Your project found that the life expectancy for individuals in Florida prisons decreased by four years since the beginning of the pandemic. Could you elaborate on this study?

SD: My team found that there were a number of data sets we could compare to calculate excess mortality in Florida prisons. For excess mortality, we looked at the expected number of deaths in Florida prisons and in the general state of Florida in the past five years. Once we had those numbers, we compared our data on COVID-19 deaths in the first nine months of the pandemic to baseline mortality rates, and what we found was that for the general population, excess mortality was 15% higher than expected, and for the Florida prison population, excess mortality was 42% higher. 

The lead author of the paper, Neal Marquez, a health sociologist, explained to me that a drop in life expectancy of a year is considered historic and catastrophic. During World War I and II, for example, the national life expectancy decreased by one to one and a half years in the United States. During the pandemic, we don’t have Florida-specific numbers for the life expectancy change, but we do have national numbers that we used to calculate the drop in life expectancy in Florida prisons. The numbers we used were from December 2020, where the national drop in life expectancy was .9 years for women and 1.2 years for men. The national decrease in life expectancy averages out to about a 1.05 year drop. In the prison context, the drop in life expectancy was 4.1 years. 

AV: That’s shocking. I know the project has also published data on vaccination rates within the incarcerated population and the correctional officer population. Can you expand on what this data shows? 

SD: When the vaccine issue arose in December, we were worried that incarcerated people would have a low vaccine uptake rate due to their inherent distrust of the facility. Also, a large portion of incarcerated people have mental illnesses and are hard to convince of things. 

We and a number of other advocacy groups worked to mobilize mechanisms to educate incarcerated people about the vaccine. Our team put together an information sheet about the vaccine that we distributed through Prison Legal News, a publication that reaches thousands of incarcerated people around the country. The vaccine uptake rate is not as high as we would like, but it’s much higher than we predicted it would be. 

But in all this focus on making sure that incarcerated people were going to have the vaccine made available to them, we forgot that corrections officers are disproportionately likely to think of COVID-19 as a hoax. Corrections officers tend to be conservative, so we’re seeing really low uptake rates in that population, which is a problem. If every incarcerated person does not get vaccinated and there aren’t enough staff members getting vaccinated, then there is going to continue to be community spread in prisons.

AV: How do you think students can bring awareness to the largely underrecognized impact that COVID-19 has had on incarcerated people? 

SD: I’m glad you asked. There are a few things students can do. At the most basic level, they can reach out to us to volunteer. To a great degree, we’ve been running on volunteer labor from the beginning; to date, we’ve had almost 300 volunteers on the project. 

We’re also hoping that people will use our data. The data is posted by state, so you can look at how your specific state is doing. We also, as I mentioned, have scorecards that grade each jurisdiction’s Department of Corrections. Look at how your state fares—I can tell you it’s not really a spoiler to say that we only have one state that got a B and every other state received a C or below with most states getting an F; use that data to contact your state representatives to demand change. 

In addition to decarceration, something else I hope comes out of this project is a recognition of how urgently we need  greater transparency from prisons. Prisons shouldn’t just be releasing data about COVID-19. What about how many people die of other causes? How many uses of force are there annually? How many of those instances have resulted in discipline? How many instances of violence have there been, and what’s the Department doing to reduce those numbers? There is so much data that could be collected and published to give us a better sense of what goes on behind prison walls. I would love to see political action insisting on greater transparency. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.