GUEST EDITORIAL: Pa. prisons’ unreliable COVID data hides rue extent of crisis

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board (TNS)

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is apparently doing such an effective job in its coronavirus response that it’s bringing people felled by the disease back to life. On Dec. 21, DOC’s COVID-19 Dashboard showed that the number of people incarcerated who died of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania’s state prisons was 65. The next day, that number went down to 58.

But it wasn’t a Christmas miracle. It was just the latest and most egregious example of data errors and lack of transparency by the DOC on the coronavirus behind prison walls.

On the same date that seven fatalities disappeared from the data, so did nearly 25,000 tests, 11,000 of which were positive. The number of people who recovered also went down from 10,103 to 2,584.

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The unexplained change in data wasn’t the first time, nor the first discrepancy.

The dashboard for Dec. 14 showed that a person incarcerated in State Correctional Institution Forest had died of the coronavirus. However, in a press release last week, DOC announced that the first death at SCI Forest was on Dec. 22.

Philadelphia’s Amistad Law Project found multiple instances in which the reported number of positive cases went down in specific prisons, without explanation.

On at least two occasions, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reduced the number of people incarcerated who have died from coronavirus in prison without explanation.

According to a DOC spokesperson, there was a “system glitch” on the 21st that led to an erroneous report of cases and deaths. Other tests were removed because of a deliberate change — in cases when there was both a positive rapid test and lab test for the same person, for example, the dashboard reported two positives. Since the 24th, the dashboard reports individual positive cases.

The early SCI Forest death on the dashboard was an input error.

Data errors happen. But for data to be trustworthy, changes need to be transparent. The change in how tests are counted was not explained publicly. The language on the dashboard was not updated. It is also unclear if the dashboard data before and after the change is comparable — making analysis of trends unreliable.

Tracking trends is key. From mid-March to mid-October, 11 people incarcerated died of COVID in prison. In the months since, another 51 died.

The data is particularly important because it is one of few windows into the state’s prisons. Since March, visitations were canceled, though the capacity for video calls has increased. Family members have minimal ability to assess the risk to their incarcerated loved ones.

Last week, Spotlight PA reported on family members who weren’t informed by DOC on their loved one’s severe COVID-19 illness or death.

Claire Shubik-Richards of the Pennsylvania Prison Society says that the issue with the COVID-19 dashboard is just one manifestation of an inability to track basic issues, including who is incarcerated and why.

Case in point: When Gov. Tom Wolf instituted a reprieve program in April as part of the coronavirus effort, DOC estimated that 1,200 people would be eligible. The true eligible pool was much smaller, and fewer than 200 actually received reprieve.

If the Pennsylvania DOC can’t be accurate and transparent about its data, it sheds doubt on its ability to be transparent about how it’s handling COVID-19. Behind every number is a life, and far too many are being lost in prison during this pandemic.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board (TNS).