UCLA Law students publish report on conditions in California prisons during the pandemic

June 7, 2023
Annabel Adams
Prison cell - Photo credit: iStock.com/Luke_Franzen
Photo credit: iStock.com/Luke_Franzen

A team of student researchers from UCLA School of Law’s Prison Accountability Project have published a report that details incarcerated individuals’ experiences in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) facilities during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report was covered in the Los Angeles Times on the same day it published on June 7.

The report co-authors—rising third-year students Nora Browning, Joseph Gaylin, Shireen Jalali-Yazdi and Kamilah Mims—and a team of student volunteers transcribed and coded hundreds of calls and letters from people incarcerated in 28 CDCR facilities between April 2020 and April 2021, utilizing data provided by UCI’s PrisonPandemic project.

They identified routine medical abuse and neglect, unsanitary conditions, extreme isolation, and physical violence directed at incarcerated individuals, often unreported by official oversight bodies. Prisons in Chino, Solano, Chuckwalla and Mule Creek had the highest incident rates.

“Thanks to the hard work of those who put it together—and to those people, incarcerated in California during the pandemic, whose testimonials form the backbone of the report—we have a richer understanding about the nature and extent of the abuses to which incarcerated people were subjected in California state prisons at the height of the pandemic,” says UCLA Law professor Sharon Dolovich, director of UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program and a faculty advisor for the Prison Accountability Project.

“It’s not just that correctional staff neglected incarcerated people. This report also confirms that many staff members knowingly and systematically disregarded basic protocols that would have protected incarcerated people—not to mention the staff themselves. This report makes clear just how profound the need is for ongoing, external monitoring that centers the voices of incarcerated people.”

Of the 279 incarcerated individuals whose calls and letters were transcribed and coded, nearly half described conditions where social distancing was impossible. Among the incidents detailed in the report are that 115 people reported unsanitary conditions, including leaky roofs and rats; 57 reported that staff didn’t comply with mask mandates; 14 said they were explicitly denied medical care after contracting COVID-19; and nine reported witnessing a person die or seeing a dead body.

"In the absence of rigorous external oversight that centers the experiences of incarcerated people, my hope is that the Prison Accountability Project can provide advocates, lawyers and organizers with accurate information about widespread problems in California carceral institutions," says Joseph Gaylin ’24, co-author of the report and founder of the Prison Accountability Project.

Co-authors Gaylin and Jalali-Yazdi formulated what would become the Prison Accountability Project while in their first year of law school, and later received the law school’s U Serve LA award in Spring 2022 for their efforts to center the voices of incarcerated individuals during the pandemic.

The project continued during the students’ second year as part of the 2L seminar for students enrolled in the law school’s David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy as well as with the support of the Judge Rand Schrader Pro Bono Program, which facilitated hundreds of hours of work by student volunteers. The co-authors themselves dedicated over 500 hours to the project, and 64 students in total contributed over 800 hours.

This is the second major report this year on conditions in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic published by UCLA Law scholars. In February, UCLA Law’s Behind Bars Data Project, founded by Dolovich and directed by UCLA Law professor Aaron Littman, launched a database that tracks the number of people who died while incarcerated, the only nationwide accounting of recent deaths in U.S. prisons.

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