Kristin Turney

As the pandemic surpasses the three-year mark, UCI sociology professor Kristin Turney has received a $510,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the devastating toll it’s taken on incarcerated individuals across the U.S.

“Incarcerated people have experienced a risk of infection five times higher and risk of death three times higher than people in the general population,” she says. “But recent national data collection projects lack both racial/ethnic information on deaths and facility-level details about the characteristics of places where deaths have been concentrated.”

Her project aims to fill this gap. She’s part of a team that’s taking an in-depth look at mortality in U.S. prisons during the pandemic. Their findings will provide the first systematic accounting of the total mortality toll in prisons across the United States—a necessary foundation for future planning for resiliency efforts.

Their work is guided by three research questions:

  1. Did the risk of deaths in prison—from COVID-19, other natural causes, and unnatural causes—during the pandemic (2020-22) differ significantly from the risk of death in prisons in prior years (2013-19)?
  2. How is race/ethnicity associated with deaths in prisons, and did racial/ethnic disparities in deaths differ during the pandemic as compared to prior years?
  3. How are state- and facility-level characteristics (including structural racism, COVID-19 mitigation responses, and carceral deprivation) associated with deaths during the pandemic?

Using state-by-state public records requests, they’re collecting and analyzing information on all deaths among people in custody. They’ll supplement and verify their findings alongside other data available through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Death Index (NDI), vital statistics, and medical examiners’ offices.

“Our findings will forward public understanding of these institutions as sites of systematic racial inequality, extreme punishment, and institutional decision-making,” she says.

Joining Turney in this effort are Naomi Sugie, criminology, law & society associate professor, UCI; Keramet Reiter, criminology, law & society professor, UCI; and Monik Jimenez, associate epidemiologist, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of medicine, Harvard.  

Funding for this work begins in May and runs through April 2025.

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