The Human Cost of Missing Data in Prisons

The St. Tammany Parish Jail, which houses state prisoners in Louisiana, as do many local detention centers.

The St. Tammany Parish Jail, which houses state prisoners in Louisiana, as do many local detention centers. AP Photo via The Advocate

COMMENTARY | Nowhere is good information about operations more critical than in prisons and jails. But too often states simply lack the kind of data that holds officials accountable.

Across the country, the nation’s prisons and jails face major challenges—including understaffing, outdated facilities and insufficient medical care—that can foster violence that jeopardizes both inmates and staff. Many states are trying to tackle these problems, but they face a basic impediment: A lack of data that leaves decision-makers stymied in reaching good policy decisions.

“It’s a grave problem,” say Adam Gelb, a nationally-recognized expert about incarceration and president of the Council on Criminal Justice. “In most states we don’t have anywhere near the bandwidth of information to assess how well or poorly prisons are fulfilling their mandates.”

Just last month, Tennessee’s Division of State Audit issued a critical report about the state’s department of corrections. The report indicates that corrections leaders and the legislature simply don’t have the data necessary to effectively manage their prisons.

Perhaps the most flagrant example of questionable data is Tennessee’s   measures of individual facilities’ performance. “Each year,” says Vince Finamore, audit manager of that report, “the department (of corrections) tells the legislature these scores look great. Many are rated at over 95%.”

But the state comes up with those averages by looking at a wide swath of data points and averaging them all as equals. That means the grades give equal weight to keeping kitchen and laundry water heaters in good maintenance as it does to problems in sufficiently monitoring the mental health of prisoners. A prison with a number of serious problems identified by the corrections agency could end up with a high performance score because it racked up good scores on less important categories.

As the audit reports, “These scores do not differentiate between ‘critical’ or ‘other’ findings and do not stress mission critical areas that may directly impact the safety and security of inmates, staff and the general public.”

One reason this is such a problem is that corrections department leaders use the data they collect to decide how many staff members they need for a particular prison—one of the most consequential decisions over which policy makers have some control.

There’s much more in the audit that raises concerns, including insufficient reporting of inmate deaths and serious incidents into a central database. Near the top of the list is a lack of consistency in how the data is validated, and as such “managers may be getting misinformation, which can lead to larger problems” says Finamore.

The Tennessee Department of Corrections accepted the auditor’s findings, explaining the reasons for some of the problems, but also conceding that the agency needs to quickly address the record keeping problems.

One of the most significant causes of violence in prisons is overcrowding and understaffing. Yet, in Louisiana, inadequate systems for monitoring when prisoners should be released have too often resulted in inmates serving more time behind bars than they are actually required to under the law. Corrections officials have acknowledged this problem, estimating in 2019 it costs the state $2.8 million a year.    

According to a 2017 Louisiana audit, the state Department of Corrections not only had a problem with calculating when prisoners should be released, but needed to improve how it manages “offender data, including better tracking of offender locations.” Though the audit didn’t link that finding to safety issues for the prisoners or the correctional officers, it did reveal a lack of the kind of data that is necessary for rehabilitation programs that are designed to help keep the public safer.

As the auditor in charge of that report, Kristen Jacobs complains that there’s insufficient data about when prisoners are released and even where they actually resided within the prison system. “There are a lot of inconsistencies. We did a sampling of 100 offender files and then called the facilities to see if the inmates were there. Eleven weren’t.” It wasn’t that there had been a rash of breakouts—the system simply lacked the kind of inventory controls that are commonplace in a neighborhood hardware store. This was particularly true of inmate transfers between state and local lockups.

Louisiana state legislators in December grilled Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc about the delayed release dates that kept prisoners locked up after they had served all their time. He acknowledged the problems hadn’t been fixed, saying a prime factor was the lack of an information system connecting court clerks, the corrections agency and local jails, where more than half of state inmates are held in Louisiana. “Changes are clearly required and we can agree that no person should be held beyond his or her proper release date,” LeBlanc said, according to WWL-TV.

Across the country, while there exist profound gaps in the kind of data states maintain for their own prisons, there might be an even bigger problem in what corrections officials know about the jails that many states use for short-term inmate stays and as a solution for overcrowding.

For example, state officials know the percentage of inmates who are in their own facilities as a result of having probation or parole revoked. “But they don’t have that for jails,” says Jake Horowitz, who leads the Pew Charitable Trust’s public safety performance project. Even when individual jails have access to this kind of information, “most don’t make it accessible. . . There’s almost no state that can tell you about jails, whether it’s time served or discharge times.

“This is just not a high priority for the states.”

But it should be.

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
A large urban park creates a "connected" visitor experience with SMART.NODEs™
Sydney NSW, Australia
Expanding broadband access with small cell deployment in City of Ontario
Ontario, CA, USA
Community feedback increases 13x in Lancaster, PA with both offline and online engagement methods
Lancaster, PA, USA

NEXT STORY: Researchers Find Security Flaws in Mobile Voting App

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.