“Help Us” written in soap on a window of a Massachusetts jail. “Contraband” cell phones used to document crowded, filthy, and understaffed prisons. Hunger strikes to demand action after massive outbreaks. In early 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, incarcerated people sounded these warnings that U.S. prisons were exploding with illness and devoid of even the most basic necessities for hygiene, such as soap, water, and hand sanitizer. Now everyone knows the truth, thanks to the recent New York Times front page news that prison deaths increased “nearly 50 percent” during the pandemic.
Data has dispelled any doubt: the nation’s prisons make people sick, ending lives early. But even in the early days of the pandemic, organizing by people inside and by their loved ones began to bring more active attention to the longstanding murkiness surrounding death in prison. When someone dies inside, their loved ones struggle to get accurate information about what medical treatment (if any) the person received, the cause of death, and more. COVID-19 exacerbated this obfuscation, and as the pandemic deepened—even with mounting death tolls—many prisons and jails began, in the words of the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, “to roll back basic data reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in their facilities” in “a deliberate cloaking of the reality on the ground.”
The institutional negligence that accompanied COVID-19, coupled with the longstanding lack of transparency surrounding death in prison, propelled the expansion of data transparency groups focused on death in prison. Most states now have death-in-custody data initiatives. We are excited about these projects (we started such an initiative in 2016). But our own work agitating for transparency surrounding death in prison has led us to ask if the heightened focus on death in prisons and jails ignited by COVID-19 will create the shifts we need. Will these forms of research enable more people to get free or to stay alive? How and why does transparency, and data, matter? Can organizing that spotlights death in custody communicate to a wide public that life matters?
Before COVID-19, 80–100 people died every year in the Illinois prison system. We thought that going public with accurate data about these deaths—which the state so often obscures and misreports—would, on its own, trigger some public outcry, curiosity, or empathy.
We were, in part, wrong.
Data might be necessary but, as we have learned, it is not sufficient on its own to dismantle the world’s largest prison system.
In 2016, well before COVID-19, we started the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project. A group of artists and scholars, we began meeting in 2015 to discuss how we could raise public awareness about the high numbers of people who die in prison and in jail in our state. We were motivated by our collective experiences working inside prisons, supporting loved ones who are incarcerated, producing art to facilitate social change, and our shared commitment to abolition. Outraged by the routineness of deaths in prison—which rarely trigger investigation or public outrage—and moved by the unpaid hospice and other care work people in prison often do for one another, we decided to gather and circulate information about deaths in prisons.
IDCP engaged in our work in several ways. First, our team met regularly to scour official media outlets for news reports about deaths in custody and to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for official government records that are not otherwise publicly available. These data—news reports and responses to our FOIAs—were made available to the public on the IDCP website. Second, we solicited material—eulogies, art, and letters—from people inside about deaths in custody. Third, we created public workshops and exhibits, and published academic papers, op-eds, essays, and a factsheet to raise the visibility of deaths (and lives) of incarcerated people in Illinois.
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This project was always complicated and emotionally charged, as there is nothing transparent or neutral about people’s deaths in prison. While we were fully aware of the lethal conditions of carcerality—medical neglect, price-gouging for necessities, isolation and overcrowding, and more—the Illinois Department of Corrections data accessed by IDCP through public documents requests confirmed a toxic mix of incompetence, lack of accountability, and confusion around the circumstances of deaths of people in prisons.
Despite federal legislation, the 2000 Death in Custody Reporting Act, requiring every state to voluntarily report deaths in custody—those that occurred in the process of arrest, during transfer, or while detained in jail or prison—gaining accurate and complete information about deaths in U.S. prisons remains challenging. It often still takes days for people to be notified about the death of a loved one in prison. In many cases, no cause of death is listed. Loved ones who seek information are ignored.
Other nations, with significantly smaller prison populations, hold public inquiries or inquests when there is a death in custody. While these public processes are not necessarily radically effective—for example, inquests and commissions in Australia have not supported more incarcerated people’s well-being or freedom—they can often offer more transparency to loved ones and serve as a public platform to showcase the lack of accountability of the criminal legal system.
Our collective is not slick: We aren’t affiliated with heavily resourced universities, law firms, or any deep-pocketed funders. Yet when we release data and reports, allied abolitionist organizations and networks pay some attention. This, in turn, encourages us to do more. We feel compelled to take on the network of jails across the state, which are much harder to extract data from. Motivated to share tools and chip away at inside/outside divides, we have also sponsored public workshops on submitting Freedom of Information requests; supported letter-writing parties that resulted in hundreds of pieces of personal mail to incarcerated people; and even made a short film in collaboration with people inside. Incarcerated people have also sent us documentation of deaths in prisons, with details often left out of official reports.
COVID-19 did force open a new window into the deadly status quo in prisons. Yet while people are still dying inside U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19 testing in these spaces is uneven and diminishing. Without testing, deaths are not officially reported as caused by COVID-19 infection. (Horrible sidebar: As the federal government rushed at the end of the Trump administration to execute people—including several who had recently tested positive for COVID-19—it did not contact trace or share information when journalists who attended these executions tested positive for the virus.)
The pandemic also highlighted that incarcerated people are still being used as research subjects, despite the 1976 prohibition on doing so with people in the federal system (except in what is termed “minimally invasive” research). In 2020 a handful of people in a prison in Arkansas who had contracted COVID-19 were treated without their consent with ivermectin, a drug that was not approved to treat the virus yet touted as a useful response by President Donald Trump. (In 2006 a federal medical advisory board advocated for testing pharmaceuticals in prisons. In 2018 some researchers advocated using people in prison in a study to explore the impact of sodium in diets.)
Soon after President Joe Biden declared the pandemic to be “over,” in October 2022 people in Alabama prisons organized a strike that lasted three weeks. Organizer Diyawn Caldwell offered as rationale for the strike: “The deaths have significantly risen. . . . We have more people coming out in body bags than on parole.” Nineteen people died at Rikers Island jail facilities in New York City in 2022, one of the deadliest years on record (organizers held an eighteen-hour vigil to mark the eighteen people who died as of November 2022 at Rikers). Flush with noxious water, in 2022 Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois—like a handful of other prisons in Illinois—was contaminated with the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. (The Illinois Department of Corrections repeatedly hedged about the presence of the bacteria in its facilities before finally acknowledging its spread.) And people still die inside prisons of Hepatitis C–related complications—a thousand in the last six years—despite the availability of a cure.
Dehumanization, medical abandonment, unsafe conditions—these are the daily realities of incarceration. No more research is needed to confirm that prisons kill people.
After seven years of IDCP’s efforts and three years into the pandemic, we are anxious, though in truth not surprised, that research and data often makes little impact. We will claim the dubious honor of accepting partial credit for the passage of a 2021 Illinois law, the Reporting of Deaths in Custody Act, which pushes all state law enforcement agencies to comply with the 2000 federal law requiring them to report deaths in custody. But, overall, public response to our data has been tepid.
This is not just a problem in Illinois. Facts about the death toll in prisons and jails proliferate nationally. Perhaps we could generously say it is empathy fatigue, or the crushing weight of (racial) capitalism—everybody is required to constantly work to live—that pushes people away from the stark truth that prisons kill. But it’s more than that: There is no getting away from the fact that U.S. culture conspires to mark incarcerated people as more disposable and less worthy of grieving. People in prison—many of whom are non-white, queer, and poor—don’t count as fully human to the state or to the wider public. Our experiences push us to ask what might be the kind of data that insists, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore states, “Where life is precious, life is precious.”
The only way to ensure the preciousness of life and stop deaths in prison is to stop people from ending up in prison. And abolitionist organizing is how we win. Yes, research must report causes of death in prison, and bring attention to how these deaths are generated by state violence, which the state then conspires to cover up. When someone dies, loved ones on the inside and outside of prisons want, and deserve, to know: What happened? Research should also amplify the creative ways incarcerated people find to protect themselves and each other, highlighting their expertise, care, and ingenuity. And naming the work outside loved ones did (and do) during the pandemic to supply clean water, hand sanitizer, soap, and other protective necessities to those inside—this is critical, too.
Most crucially, we need work that propels more people to act and to collectively organize to end our reliance on prisons and policing. If the end result of research is simply greater transparency about a basic fact we already know—that prisons are death-making institutions—or more policies that require prisons to report the cause of death more accurately, we are no closer to decarceration, as we learned through our own experience.
Early in the pandemic, across the United States, caravans of cars circled prisons and detention centers while covered with signs demanding “Free Them All!” That demand is still central, pandemic or not.
Image: Arthur Harutyunyan/Unsplash