Our Response to the Department of Corrections January 29th Statement, And Changes To Our Website.

Jake M. Parelman & Matthew Brook O’Donnell
February 16, 2021

After months of reporting and calls for action from our team and other advocates, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections released a statement on January 29th announcing that they would be reevaluating their practices surrounding their management and reporting of COVID-19 testing data. In this statement, Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel outlined the steps the department would be taking to address glaring issues in their data, including the automation of data collection from state correctional institutions and a new dashboard, which may be available in the next 30 days.

We are pleased to see that the DOC is now taking our complaints about their COVID-19 testing data management seriously and are addressing the concerning issues we’ve identified in their data. We are still adamant, however, that a necessary component of these reforms is clear documentation of the methods used for testing and data management and that there be complete public access to this information and data. The DOC has damaged its own reputation in this regard, and so we feel that a more transparent process of oversight is needed before the DOC can regain the full trust of Pennsylvania citizens. We specifically call on the DOC to make the following commitments as they re-build their COVID-19 testing data infrastructure:

  1. Detail a clear description of the procedures used to identify incarcerated persons for testing (e.g. testing purpose)
  2. Provide a list and description of the tests used
  3. Provide a codebook for any data sheets produced, including clear descriptions for each variable and how they are derived.
  4. Detail the process by which testing information is collected from all SCI and aggregated
  5. Describe how data is stored and accessed and by whom

As we await the changes promised by the DOC in their statement, our team continues to try and present COVID-19 testing data in a clear and comprehensive way on this website. We are limited, however, in our ability to provide clear information to the public by the new dearth of information provided by the DOC at this time. The new summary PDFs provided by the DOC through their website are both grossly insufficient for providing meaningful information, and irregularly updated. In addition to this, we know that there are many additional pieces of information the DOC can provide. Data previously shared with our team included staff testing, incarcerated persons positive, negative and pending numbers, deaths, and testing purposes.

At the same time that the DOC released their mea culpa and promised better data, we also lost access to the data that makes it possible for us to communicate clearly the state of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons. The contradictions between the DOC’s statement and the reality of the situation cannot be understated. Given the disappointing changes that we’ve seen in the past weeks, we also make the following requests:

  1. The DOC should provide accurate COVID-19 testing data for all SCI for 01/26 and later.
  2. The DOC should re-activate a working download link for complete daily COVID-19 testing data
  3. The DOC should provide clear documentation for the data currently provided on their daily summary PDFs (e.g. descriptions of how fields like “asymptomatic positive” are defined and derived).

The Amistad Law Project will continue to update our website with the most up-to-date and most detailed data available to our research team. We understand the importance of communicating this information, and are aware of the immediate need for clear reporting as the DOC dashboard is down. We do not believe that the DOC will return their dashboard to working order in 30 days, making our need for the most comprehensive and current data all the more important. At this time, we are able to report only the data provided by the daily PDFs uploaded to the DOC’s website. We hope that in the coming weeks we will have access again to the information we need to continue to provide knowledge and comfort to the families and loved ones of incarcerated people.