Sharon Dolovich and Aaron Littman earn Public Impact Research Awards

June 8, 2023
Sharon Dolovich (left) and Aaron Littman
Sharon Dolovich (left) and Aaron Littman

The outstanding work that UCLA School of Law professors Sharon Dolovich and Aaron Littman have completed since the start of the pandemic to highlight health and safety concerns in the nation’s prisons was celebrated at a June 2 event where they were presented with UCLA Public Impact Research Awards.

They were among three members of the UCLA faculty who earned the awards, which were created in 2019-20, in honor of UCLA’s Centennial Celebration, “to recognize faculty whose research or other creative work has had a significant beneficial public impact, where such benefit has been achieved in part through the efforts of those same faculty to bring their research or creative activity into the public arena.” That impact could “include scientific, social, cultural, artistic, political and other forms of public benefit that may be local, national or global.”

Dolovich and Littman were recognized for the work that they did in launching and leading teams of researchers who contributed to UCLA Law’s Behind Bars Data Project. At the event at the residence of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, which Dolovich could not attend, both extended thanks to their many partners in the ongoing endeavor, which started as a way of tracking the impact of COVID-19 in prisons.

“As the pandemic progressed, and as we watched people in custody getting sicker and dying from COVID at disproportionately high rates, the Project grew in size and ambition,” Dolovich said in prepared remarks that Littman read. Littman then said that he felt “so fortunate to be part of an academic community where research like ours matters—a university where the lives and deaths of incarcerated people matter.”

Dolovich is a professor of law, faculty director of the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program, and director of the Behind Bars Data Project. Littman is an assistant professor of law and the deputy and acting director of the Behind Bars Data Project.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, a year after the Department of Justice stopped keeping accurate records on deaths in custody, Dolovich and Littman launched the project as an effort to track the impact of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and other U.S. carceral facilities. What began as an open-data spreadsheet soon grew to involve several full-time staffers and well over a hundred volunteers who, through public records requests and web scraping, assembled the most important repository of COVID-19–related prison data in the nation.

Major media outlets frequently drew on the project’s data in their reporting, prisoner advocates used its findings in filing emergency-release motions, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to rely on the project to monitor conditions in prisons during the pandemic. Project organizers were twice invited to contribute to U.S. Senate investigations into deaths in custody. In addition, articles published by the COVID Behind Bars Project in major scientific journals revealed that prisoners died from COVID-19 at much higher rates than the general public and uncovered stark racial disparities in deaths among Texas prisoners.

“In a moment of crisis, when millions of vulnerable people living behind bars were facing an outsized risk of COVID infection and death, scores of UCLA students, staff and faculty mobilized to try to help mitigate the threat,” says Dolovich, who received a UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 2021. “This Public Impact Research Award honors the public service commitment of the many members of the UCLA community who together made our work possible.”

In the continuing absence of accurate federal data on carceral deaths in the U.S., the Behind Bars Data Project has become the country’s most comprehensive public resource tracking prison deaths from all causes nationwide.

“Prison health is public health,” says Littman, the recipient of a 2022 Junior Scholar Award from the Criminal Justice Section of the Association of American Law Schools. “Documenting the toll incarceration takes is a first step towards stemming it.”

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