Misinformation has walked hand-in-hand with coronavirus since the pandemic began, creating what some have called an “infodemic” that threatens lives with misleading statistics. Now, misinformation is targeting some of the most vulnerable to the virus: those in prisons and jails.
Researchers who study how coronavirus affects incarcerated people have seen their work manipulated by major media outlets, and are speaking out to Inverse.
The trouble started on Friday, July 24, when the Wall Street Journal Opinion section published a piece titled “You’re More Likely to Catch Covid at Home Than in Jail.” Written by Sean Kennedy of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, whose biography notes research in criminal justice, Kennedy argues against the policies some states have undertaken in early release programs due to coronavirus.
“Advocates for early release point to the infection rate among prisoners, which is three times as high as that of the general population. But that rate is skewed wildly by testing availability. In many states, prisoners are being tested at significantly higher rates than the non-incarcerated population.
"In fact, there has been no wave of mass deaths among prisoners,” Kennedy concludes.
He then goes on to cite the data from UCLA’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project to support his claim.
Why it matters — The conditions of the incarcerated population during Covid-19 have become a major political issue. President Donald Trump, when issuing a pardon to his political associate Roger Stone, cited "serious medical risk in prison." Human Rights Watch criticized governments around the world for releasing prisoners too slowly, and some states, such as California, have promised to release up to 8,000 prisoners in response.
For Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder and co-CEO of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the problem isn't just limited to political proclamations and celebrities. The Katal Center is an organization working toward "ending mass criminalization, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs" in New York and Connecticut.
Coronavirus is "a great concern to many of our members, particularly given that a lot of people who are incarcerated just, in general, are going to prison in jails with pre-existing conditions that make them far more vulnerable to a disease like this virus," Sayegh tells Inverse.
"This is a crisis that is unfolding in prisons and jails across the country, and it's almost entirely invisible to most Americans," Sayegh says. "But anybody who is paying attention, and particularly people who are incarcerated in these facilities or have loved ones who are incarcerated, will tell you that the fear level is rightfully quite high."
Are claims of Covid-19 safety behind bars backed up by research? — Kalind Parish, a pre-doctoral fellow with the Behind Bars Data Project — which conducted the research — tells Inverse this: “In short, no. Mr. Kennedy argues that prisoners aren't dying in as great a number as the US population, which is completely inaccurate."
"Mr. Kennedy argues that prisoners aren't dying in as great a number as the US population, which is completely inaccurate."
The inaccuracy starts in the numbers Kennedy cites in his op-ed, which links to a Google spreadsheet link compiled by the Behind Bars Data Project. Parish cites Kennedy’s use of the spreadsheet for data. “Mr. Kennedy included the limited jail data we do post on our website, which only covers six jail systems, but then proceeded to include the entire jail population as his denominator, which is problematic,” Parish tells Inverse.
As of July 11, there were 629 reported coronavirus-related deaths in American prisons, according to UCLA’s data. “These 629 deaths were amongst 1,295,285 prisoners in the US, for a rate of 48.6 deaths per 100,000 prisoners. This is 31 percent higher than the US death rate of 37.1 per 100,000 (121,370 deaths for 327 million people),” Parish tells Inverse.
Kennedy’s piece also compares the prison population to the U.S population in general, which Parish says is another mistake. “Critically, however, the prison population is on average much younger than the US population,” he tells Inverse. This is important because generally speaking, younger people are at a lesser risk of dying of coronavirus.
Over 50 percent of the U.S prison population is 40 or younger, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, while only 2.8 percent of the prison population is over 65. According to data from the Census Bureau, approximately 14.9 of the U.S population as a whole over 65.
So incarcerated people, going strictly by age, should already be less vulnerable to coronavirus. And yet, Parish tells Inverse that “the death rate is still 2.9 times higher for prisoners when you adjust for age- and sex-distributions.”
Kennedy “argues that the ratio of deaths to infections (not the overall population) is higher for the US population, and he is right — as long as we do not use the age- and sex-adjusted numbers. He is essentially trying to measure apples with oranges here, which is not accurate,” Parish says.
Expectations versus reality — Kennedy writes that "if properly equipped and regimented, jails and prisons can do the things necessary to reduce infection—provide sanitation, health care and isolation — more effectively than most institutions. Quarantining afflicted inmates isn’t only possible, its par for the course."
Parish agrees that these things could provide some protection, yet "unfortunately, it seems that many systems are not actually doing these things, and the infection rates we are seeing in many of these facilities are truly shocking."
Analysts have backed up Parish's skepticism, with groups like the ACLU's Smart Justice Prison Initiative awarding most states an "F" or "F+" rating for their efforts to prevent Covid deaths among the incarcerated.
More than statistics — The American system of incarceration was not built with a pandemic like a coronavirus in mind, and there's no perfect way to handle such populations.
Even if populations were reduced, Parish says, "you have staff coming in and out every day, and you have people who will leave because their prison terms expire. I think that biting the bullet and releasing more people so that prisons stop being such strong vectors for the disease will, long-term, reduce the spread of Covid-19 more than letting the prison system continue to produce such high rates of infection."
Inverse reached out to Sean Kennedy and the Maryland Public Policy Institute with Parish’s analysis, but Kennedy declined to respond on the record except to call this article “one-sided.”
The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section has come under fire in recent days by journalists working at the paper, citing a “lack of fact-checking and transparency” by the section’s writers and editors.
"Covid deaths in prison (as are all prison deaths) is a very political issue,” Parish, the researcher whose date was manipulated, tells Inverse.
"We have heard stories of people being moved to hospitals from prisons to get treated, dying there, and the Department of Corrections considering it to not be a death in their care anymore since these people were at hospitals...Because of that, our death estimate is almost certainly an under-count.”