Dying in Prisons During the Pandemic

As cited in a New York Times article this week, the UCLA Law Behind Bars Data Project recently announced that is releasing a “comprehensive public resource documenting prison deaths nationwide.” Already, their research demonstrates a devastating impact of COVID on incarcerated people:

In 2020, at least 6,182 people died in U.S. prisons.  This is a 46% increase in the lives lost behind bars from 2019, despite a 10% decrease in the overall prison population. The U.S. has seen a significant, continual increase in deaths in prisons over the past two decades, but never before have the country’s prisons seen such a steep increase year-to-year.

Michael Everett and Lauren Woyczynski, ‘UCLA Law releases new database to monitor deaths in prisons with funding from Arnold Ventures,’ February 19, 2023.

In 2020, I began a similar research project documenting deaths inside prisons run by the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC). It began with a request to access public records of all deaths in the system from 2015 to when the request was filed (2020). Over the next years, I made several subsequent requests and the DOC provided additional data. Drawing on my research from Massachusetts, it is clear that the COVID mortality data provides an incomplete assessment of the impact on incarcerated people for several reasons. (See also my blog essays of Sept. 1 and  Sept. 8, 2020).

  1. In the first wave of COVID (Spring 2020) testing was inadequate and knowledge about the virus was still developing. Many people died of “other” causes, and it was not tracked nor well understood how these may relate to COVID.
  2. There were severe disruptions in people’s access to regular medical attention, including access to medicine for people suffering chronic diseases. Medical care inside prisons is endemically poor, at best; it was negligent during the pandemic. (See, for example, the Disability Law Center’s report on two prisons for details, pp. 2 & 4).
  3. A likely small, but still significant and unaccounted for, number of incarcerated people were released on medical parole as they were dying of COVID in hospitals. This cleared them from the DOC’s official numbers.
  4. Even after the DOC was ordered by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to include deaths in mandated COVID data reporting, the data they reported through this mechanism is inconsistent with dating revealed through public records access requests.

In short, the available data across the country and in Massachusetts suggests that COVID was devastating for incarcerated people — and we know that the data is incomplete and contains inaccuracies. In Massachusetts, there has been no independent investigation or attempt to assess how the system could improve its ability to respond. The Courts have backed off and neither the former Governor nor the new Governor seemed to think that accountability applies to their prison system.

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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