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Report Finds ‘Troubling Lack Of Transparency’ About COVID-19 In U.S. Jails And Prisons

A barbed wire fence around the Hays County Jail.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Prisons and jails are largely failing at tracking the spread of COVID-19, according to a study from UT Austin's LBJ School.

From Texas Standard:

A new report out of the UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs shows a “troubling lack of transparency” about COVID-19 in the nation’s prison and jail systems, says LBJ School professor Michele Deitch.

Deitch, the lead author of the report, is an expert on criminal justice policy. She says most scores were low – Cs, Ds and Fs, including in Texas.

“You’ve got to understand that almost nowhere in the country is doing a great job. And there are still several problems with the data in Texas, both in terms of what is failed to be reported. And also there’s been reduced transparency over time,” she told Texas Standard.

Deitch and her colleague rated state prison, county and city jail and juvenile justice systems across the country for how forthright they were about the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and tests for people who live and work in their facilities. Some of the hardest data to obtain was from the juvenile facilities, she says.

Getting more specific demographic data was even more difficult.

“We found that very few agencies provide information about demographic breakdowns of the data by race, ethnicity, age and sex,” Deitch said. “There’s very little information about how the impact of the virus is changing over time, the status of vaccination efforts, the numbers of people hospitalized, the numbers of people who are in lockdown or in medically restricted housing and how population numbers are changing in the facilities.”

Here’s the breakdown of Texas’ grades:

Texas Department of Criminal Justice: C+

That is a high score compared to other states – Deitch says it’s in the top nine of all prison systems in the country when it comes to COVID-19 reporting transparency.

Texas Commission on Jail Standards: D

Despite that low grade, Texas is one of only three states in the country reporting COVID-19 data about jails statewide.

Texas’ juvenile justice system: D

Deitch says Texas ranked better than 29 other states.

While Texas’ criminal justice system scored better overall, by comparison, the bar is low, Deitch says. And without detailed data about what’s going on inside these facilities, it is more difficult to know how to protect inmates’ and employees’ health and stop the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t think anyone’s got it right at this point,” she said. “I think that there are agencies that are doing a reasonably good job of reporting basic data, but no one is digging deep enough to give us a really good look at what’s happening inside.”

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Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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