We were recently stunned to learn that a person in custody in Mercer County Prison died from COVID-19 earlier this year, a death that was never publicized. We also learned that 21 more county jails have had cases of COVID-19 during the pandemic than we knew.
For the last 18 months we have been tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania's correctional facilities, but this information has often been difficult to get. The Prison Society only became aware of these hidden outbreaks and the unknown death because a former investigative reporter for Spotlight PA, Joseph Darius Jaafari, shared with us a trove of data and documents he obtained while working on a story evaluating how jails across the state responded to the pandemic.
“It is simply unacceptable that it took eight months for the public to learn that another person in custody has died of COVID-19,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, the Prison Society’s executive director. “It speaks volumes about how county jails have hidden basic information vital to public health during the pandemic.”
Outbreaks likely spread to all 62 county jails
Jaafari’s reporting also reveals that the coronavirus has infected staff or people in custody in at least 58 out of the state’s 62 jails, 21 more than were previously known. The virus has likely spread to all of them by now, since he only collected data through February and three out of the four county jails with no confirmed infections did not provide testing data to the former Spotlight PA reporter. Those three counties were Greene, Indiana, and Susquehanna counties.
More deaths may be unreported
One of the previously unknown COVID-19 cases recorded in Jaafari’s data was in a person in custody in Mercer County Prison who died from the illness in January. The prison’s warden confirmed the death to the Prison Society last week but did not reply when we asked if the jail had ever shared the news with the public. It is the 8th COVID-19 death of a person in a Pennsylvania county jail by our count, and raises new doubts about whether there are more deaths that have not made it into the public record.
"Fighting" to get the public vital, basic information
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a dearth of information on COVID-19 in county correctional facilities. Only a handful of jails publish regularly updated data on coronavirus infections and deaths, and there is a widespread shortage of local journalists to root it out.
Recognizing the need for this information, the Prison Society stepped in. In the early months of the pandemic we began tracking Covid in county jails. In June 2020 we launched the first map giving a statewide picture of its spread. But the inaccessibility of this data has made it difficult to keep up with the virus. When we began calling jails in June of 2020 to ask whether they had had any Covid infections, several never responded or refused to reply.
Jaafari faced a similar response. “The question that I had was, if I had someone incarcerated in a local county jail, how easy is it for me to figure out if my loved one is at risk?” Jaafari told the Prison Society.
When he asked for their COVID-19 testing policies and data, one-third of counties (22) either didn’t respond, declined to answer, or required him to file a Right-to-Know request, the legal process for obtaining public records in Pennsylvania. When he concluded his reporting, eight counties still hadn’t provided any testing data.
“It was a labor of hours and hours and hours of fighting with counties just to get really basic data,” Jaafari said.
Knowing about COVID-19 infections and deaths in jail matters not only to people in custody and their loved ones. If prisons fail to prevent or control outbreaks, it can fuel the spread of the virus in the community. Research suggests that the high turnover rate in jails may make them especially potent contributors to the spread of COVID-19 in communities far beyond their walls. When jails don’t inform the public about outbreaks of disease, we can’t ensure that they are taking appropriate steps to keep the infections from spreading further.
"The extreme lack of transparency in many county jails is a risk to public health,” Shubik-Richards said.
The Prison Society once again calls on all county officials to publicly report jail coronavirus testing results and virus-related deaths in custody.
In addition, we continue to call on all state and county officials to:
We’re here to help.