National Prison Project Tracks the Pandemic Behind Bars

Researchers at UNC and two other institutions launch the COVID Prison Project. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Social Medicine, is a co-founder of the project.

National Prison Project Tracks the Pandemic Behind Bars click to enlarge Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, PhD

June 30, 2020

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher and colleagues at the University of Miami and Tufts University have launched the COVID Prison Project, which aims to encourage policies and procedures that protect one of the most vulnerable but least-cared-about populations.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Social Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, is a co-founder of the project, along with the University of Miami’s Kathryn M. Nowotny, PhD, and Alysse Wurcel, MD, MS, of Tufts University.

“Correctional settings have become the epi-center of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, and our group knew early on that understanding what was happening in prison systems was going to be very important,” said Brinkley-Rubinstein. 

Every day, the group tracks the pandemic’s impact on the roughly 2.7 million people who are incarcerated and the thousands who work in state and federal prisons and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers across the nation and in Puerto Rico.

Through the COVID Prison Project, they hope to provide the data and analyses that will encourage states to reduce the populations and adopt other measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers, which, by their very communal design, amplify the risks of exposure.

Prison settings amplify the spread of COVID-19. People who work and live there cannot engage in social distancing measures. They are constantly surrounded by other people, and they usually share small cells or large, crowded dorms. People are regularly searched and usually eat, shower, exercise, and even go to the bathroom in open, communal spaces. They can’t freely wash their hands and, in many facilities, have been forbidden from wearing face masks, which violate dress codes.

Often coming from marginalized communities, people involved with the criminal justice system also have higher rates of smoking, HIV, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory illness — all of the health risks that make people more susceptible to contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Just six weeks into publicly reporting and analyzing COVID-19 data in state and federal detention centers, the group has pinpointed the states where the COVID-19 death rate behind bars exceeds the death rate in the general population. They believe this is a more useful comparison than tracking just sheer numbers of deaths.

As of June 29, 2020, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has had at least two large outbreaks in prison facilities. Across all prison facilities, to date, nearly 4,400 tests have been given to people who are incarcerated, of which 795 were positive.

The data collected by the group to date is preliminary and subject to change as states increase testing and improve their reporting processes and procedures — which would make collecting the data far easier. Right now, that’s a painstaking and tedious task for the handful of staff who manually collect and update the data by visiting every state and the federal government prison websites every day.

The COVID Prison Project is funded in part by a $20,000 grant from the The Langeloth Foundation, which supports a more equitable and humane justice system.

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