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Confronted With Significant Flaws In COVID Data, Corrections Officials Concede 'It's Unacceptable'

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Jose F. Moreno
/
Philadelphia Inquirer
Sharon Murchison is photographed at her home on January 28 2021, in Philadelphia, Pa.

The Department of Corrections is reporting flawed data to keep inmates, families, and public officials informed about COVID-19 in its prisons, raising questions about the agency’s ability to accurately track the extent of the outbreak.

A five-month analysis of prison data by Spotlight PA found large fluctuations in the number of tests administered and unexplained changes to the death count. The findings were confirmed by a California researcher who was also tracking the department’s data and had noticed problems.

“It’s one thing to have little mistakes here and there, but if it’s month after month that there’s many data reporting problems, it definitely causes me pause,” said Hope Johnson, a data fellow at UCLA’s COVID Behind Bars Project, which tracks COVID-19 infections in prisons nationwide.

In an announcement Friday, sent moments before this story was published, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said he was taking action to fix the problems.

“In our haste to get information out to the public, we put a process in place that involved a single individual pulling data from multiple sources manually every day,” Wetzel said, adding, “It’s unacceptable to continue in this manner, and I need to both accept responsibility for it, and address it permanently moving forward.”

Wetzel said the data dashboard would be taken offline for 30 days while the department updates its reporting system and prepares for the addition of new data points related to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. He said new, automated reporting would improve the process.

In previous statements to Spotlight PA, department officials had acknowledged flaws in the data, and said they had recently transferred responsibility for tracking infections to their data science experts, who would undertake a thorough evaluation to determine how to improve reporting.

The department declined to comment on why data experts were not originally in charge of tracking, or when the change was made.

“Our office of Research and Statistics is taking over the daily management of the dashboard and they will be doing a deep dive into what is being collected and how best to communicate that information,” a department spokesperson, Maria Bivens, said in an email statement.

National researchers said Pennsylvania officials deserve some credit for, on the whole, being more transparent than prison systems in other states. And those advocating for more prisoner releases said the data is clear enough to know some people would be safer if released.

Others, however, said there has been a double standard about widespread concern and scrutiny of statewide coronavirus data reporting by the Department of Health, but not nearly as much attention paid to problems with data tracked and reported by corrections officials.

“There are certain individuals who don’t care that the data is crap,” state Sen. Katie Muth said (D., Chester) “And that they’re dying in the prison system. They’re fine letting that happen.”

The department has documented more than 13,200 positive cases and up to 101 deaths among staff and inmates at its 24 prisons. The Spotlight PA review found tests are being double-counted and disappearing, while deaths are sometimes counted but then erased.

Department officials have said in statements to Spotlight PA and before state lawmakers that removing data was because of errors in duplicate testing. But questions still remain on when and how many prisoners actually had the virus, were negative, or recovered.

In an emailed statement to Spotlight PA in December, Bivens, the department spokesperson, said the numbers published online now indicate the total number of inmates tested, not how many tests were performed. As of Friday, however, the data dashboard said 62,980 inmates have been tested. The department’s most recent population data for December said it only housed 40,766 inmates, a discrepancy of nearly 22,000 extra people.

Department officials declined to explain the difference.

Bret Bucklen, the lead data analyst for the department, said in an interview he couldn’t fully make sense of the numbers presented on the department’s dashboard, and has been tasked with reviewing some of the information to improve accuracy.

Bucklen has used the department’s data to challenge those pushing to release prisoners early through Gov. Tom Wolf’s temporary reprieve program. In a Jan. 7 posting to Twitter, he wrote in part, “There are several data points to suggest that in PA prison is safer than the community from COVID.”

But Wetzel, the corrections secretary, used the same data earlier this month to advocate to Senate Democrats for the opposite: to release more inmates through legislation in order to create safer distance between inmates inside.

The department has reduced its total prison population by 6,116 since the start of the pandemic through early release or parole. Another 120 people were released after the governor signed the temporary reprieve program, which fell far short of initial expectations and what some said was needed to safely social distance within prison facilities.

“I thank God, frankly, for a 6,500 inmate reduction, or these numbers of deaths and infections would be significantly worse,” Wetzel said at a committee hearing hosted by Senate Democrats. “But let me be very clear, we need further population reduction.”

Wetzel said restrictions around reprieve and early parole have increased the ratio of prisoners who are more at risk of dying of the coronavirus, noting that as of now, 47% of the state’s inmate population is medically vulnerable.

Sean Damon — the organizing director for Amistad Law Project, a prisoner legal advocacy group — has been compiling prison data in the state and said, “It’s startling to see the lack of accountability.”

The data problems have compounded concern among families desperate to understand what’s happening to their loved ones inside prisons. The department recently doubled down on its policy to not inform family when loved ones get sick or die unless they are listed as the emergency contact on department paperwork, which is often as old as an inmate’s prison term.

Sharon Murchison, whose husband and two brothers are incarcerated at SCI Chester and SCI Huntingdon, said she relies on the dashboard for information but is never certain about what’s happening.

“I check every chance I get and the information is so incorrect,” she said. “I can recall going back and forth and looking at it and going, ‘something is off.’”

Other researchers who have been collecting the state’s prison infection data said it’s better than some other states, but that officials need to rectify inaccuracies and let taxpayers know when and why they do it.

“It just creates a downstream effect of data inaccuracy, " said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, co-lead investigator and co-founder for the research consortium the COVID Prison Project. “If they’re not noting inaccuracies and giving the public that level of transparency and data standardization, then the data can be really meaningless because it just doesn’t make sense.”

Still, some lawmakers and advocacy groups say the inaccuracies do not take away from the fact that prisoners are endangered.

Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) has drafted legislation to release people from prison who are medically vulnerable. Despite the data being hard to understand, Street said he wasn’t as concerned about accuracy because he knows the severity within the prison system.

“If I needed to be convinced, then that would be true, but I don’t need to be convinced,” Street said.

And other groups, like the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the state’s unofficial ombudsman for prisoners and their families, align with Street’s view.

“I do feel like day-to-day, week-to-week, the DOC is giving us information that allows us to understand the spread and the degree of the spread,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “If I was a medical provider, this data would not be helpful.”

90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.