August 07, 2020

Van Hollen, Warren Introduce the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), along with Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), introduced the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act, legislation that would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the United States Marshals Service (USMS), and state governments to collect and publicly report detailed data about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in federal, state, and local correctional facilities.

Prisons and jails have become hotspots for the rapid spread of COVID-19, placing the 2.3 million people confined in prisons and jails in the United States in immediate danger. Although all of the 10 largest "clusters" in the U.S. are correctional facilities, there is a troubling lack of comprehensive and publicly-available data from the BOP, the USMS, and state and local governments about the spread and management of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

At the federal level, the BOP posts daily COVID-19 updates on its website but excludes important information, such as hospitalization numbers, and does not disaggregate data based on demographic categories. The USMS provides no data on its website on COVID-19 cases for individuals in its custody. At the state and local level, many state-run jails are not publicly reporting any information about COVID-19 cases, aside from a small number of large facilities. Even amongst the facilities that are reporting some information, however, the data are not standardized, and no central authority is ensuring that the data are easily accessible to and digestible by policymakers, public health experts, criminal justice professionals, and the public. This lack of detailed and public data is making it harder to manage the pandemic and contributing to the rampant spread of the virus both inside correctional facilities across the country and in the communities in which they are situated. This places incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and the public at risk.  

The COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act would provide public health experts, policymakers, and the public with critical information about COVID-19 in correctional facilities. The bill does this by:

  • requiring BOP, USMS, and state and local correctional facilities to submit the following data to the CDC on a weekly basis, and regularly publish on their websites:
    • the numbers of incarcerated individuals and correctional staff who have been tested for COVID-19, and the type of tests performed,
    • the results of COVID-19 tests, including the numbers of confirmed negative tests, confirmed active cases, pending tests, and the average time to obtain test results,
    • the outcomes of COVID-19 cases, including the numbers of people who were hospitalized, recovered, placed in or released from quarantine or medical isolation, or died from COVID-19,
    • the term of imprisonment and time served for incarcerated individuals who have been infected with COVID-19;
  • mandating that the data collected and reported be disaggregated by sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, disability, and geography; and
  • subjecting states that fail to submit the required data to the CDC to a penalty in the form of a 10% reduction in future Byrne JAG grant funding.
In addition to Senators Van Hollen, Warren, Murray, and Booker, cosponsors include Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The full text of the bill is available here. A one-pager on the bill is available here.

The COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act has received strong support. 

"The top ten COVID-19 hotspots in the country are in jails and prisons, yet there is little transparency about the response to outbreaks. This legislation would provide for key information for coordinating responses to COVID-19-including decarceration, prevention, and treatment-for those living and working in jails and prisons. It also would help us to understand the extent of disparities in the virus's spread and impact, by requiring facilities to report data on race, ethnicity, sex, age, and other demographics. Without transparency and immediate action from federal and local governments, thousands of people behind bars and in surrounding communities remain at risk. This legislation is critical to our nation's response to the pandemic. Time is of the essence; we need immediate data on outbreaks and clusters in order to mount effective responses and save lives. Without immediate changes, more lives are at risk." -- Vera Institute of Justice President Nicholas Turner

"Accurate and timely data about the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated populations will help government officials better confront the exploding public health crisis behind bars. Enactment of the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act would expose the dangers facing those in prisons and jails from COVID-19 nationwide, and hopefully motivate better management and oversight practices in carceral settings during this crisis." -- Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project

"Prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities are a deadly petri dish for highly contagious viruses like COVID-19, which can be spread easily by way of brief, indirect contact with another person through a sneeze or a cough," said Richard Saenz, Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist at Lambda Legal. "There is simply no opportunity to practice social distancing. LGBTQ people in correctional facilities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying conditions such as asthma, kidney-related problems, and other underlying conditions that are a result of a lifetime of discrimination, making them susceptible and more likely to experience complications. This important legislation will help ensure the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ people and other vulnerable communities in correctional facilities is identified in order to inform future policy making."

"Families of incarcerated individuals have a right to know how much COVID-19 testing is being done behind bars," said Jessica Jackson, Chief Advocacy Officer at REFORM Alliance. "This bill will give the public better data on the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities and produce more accountability and transparency in our prison system."