Men in jail with white and black striped pants and their shirts off facing away from the camera
Detainees gathered around a television mounted on the wall of their cellblock in the Walker County Jail last month. The jail's commander and a 73-year-old man who was incarcerated there have died with COVID-19. By May of this year, the jail had tallied 160 positive cases of the disease among its detainees and 61 cases among its employees. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

A dearth of reliable information about COVID-19 in jails is preventing health officials and policymakers across the nation from learning the true impact of the pandemic on incarcerated people and law enforcement employees.

That lack of data about infections, hospitalizations and deaths, experts say, could hamstring officials responsible for preventing the spread of diseases in America’s more than 3,000 local lockups.

“For the most part, we just don’t know what is happening behind bars. And sheriffs are given the authority — and state departments of health have kind of stayed out of their way — to decide what is the appropriate scope of services, what kind of data should be reported and what constitutes inadequate care,” said Dr. Homer Venters, a physician and epidemiologist who served as the chief medical officer for the New York City jail system. “So it is a really deficient and scattered system that we have created.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Fresh Take Georgia surveyed Georgia’s 142 county jails because of the limited and even disputed data collected by the state’s Department of Public Health.

The state agency said that the more than 10,400 confirmed and probable COVID-19 infections it has tallied among detainees and sheriff’s office employees is “most likely an undercount,” partly because of “underreporting” by jails. Its tally of 27 confirmed and probable deaths among detainees and jail employees, the agency said, likely represents an “underestimation.”

The state health department reported confirmed detainee deaths in jails in Cobb, Forsyth, Gordon and Hall counties. Sheriff’s offices in those counties told the AJC they have had no such deaths. At the same time, the state agency reported no staff deaths for the jails in Ben Hill, Effingham, Glynn, Gordon, Hall, Muscogee, Richmond and Whitfield counties, but the sheriff’s offices in those counties told the AJC each of them has had a jail employee die with the disease.

For comparison, the AJC asked Georgia’s five neighboring states for the same data. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control said it could not provide such statistics and that death certificates in the state do not specify whether people died in jails. The agency added there are no state or federal requirements for jails to report COVID-19 cases to it.

Tennessee’s Health Department also couldn’t provide data for specific jails.

Alabama’s Public Health Department said it could provide only this data: Between October and May, 252 out of 2,264 people who were tested for COVID-19 in 12 county jails had the disease.

Florida’s Health Department said it wouldn’t release data, citing a privacy exemption in state law for epidemiological research that “is to be made public only when necessary to public health.”

The state’s reasons for not sharing the data are “absolutely meritless,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Department released extensive data to the AJC about COVID-19 outbreaks at dozens of its county jails, showing more than 9,000 infections among detainees and jail employees through June 7. Some were hospitalized and died, though the state agency wouldn’t release precise figures for each jail when those numbers fell under five.

In a report she co-authored in March of last year, Michele Deitch, who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, gave Georgia and most other states an “F” for not tracking and publishing information about the impact of COVID-19 in their jails.

“Absent statewide data about what is happening in jails,” her report says, “policymakers have no way to assess the risk to incarcerated people and staff in these facilities and no information to guide an appropriate policy response.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Fresh Take Georgia partnered on this investigation. They asked all of the state’s 142 county jails for information about COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Learn more about the project.

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