Increasing jail transparency for health equity


Project to build database of incarceration experience

Ongoing calls for racial equity and criminal legal reform highlight the urgent need for data and knowledge about the criminal legal system. But, hardly any data exists.

That’s why Naomi Sugie, associate professor of criminology, law and society, and Kristin Turney, professor of sociology, and their team of colleagues — Chen Li, professor of computer science; Keramet Reiter, professor of criminology, law and society; Rocío Rosales, associate professor of sociology; and Bryan Sykes, associate professor of criminology, law and society — are building a data repository, tracking people’s experiences in jail.

“Little knowledge exists about the millions of people — the vast majority of them people of color — who experience police contact that leads to jail incarceration and the consequences of jail incarceration for health and wellbeing,” Sugie and Turney note. “Unlike state prisons (which are tracked by federal data collection efforts), jails operate at local (city and county) levels and, accordingly, data about jail populations, programs, and policies are fragmented or non-existent.”

Data-building initiatives to increase transparency around jails align with the White House’s Innovation for Equity’s support for data infrastructures that facilitate the identification of inequities, embrace community-participatory research, and promote research that is responsive to diverse needs, according to Sugie and Turney, who have been awarded $150,000 in seed funding from UCI for their project: “Jails as Hidden Institutions: Increasing Transparency and Understanding Health Inequities.”

“Jails operate as black boxes, and we currently have little knowledge — and consequently, little oversight — about the conditions, experiences, and vulnerabilities of people incarcerated in jails,” Sugie says. The funding, she adds, “supports new efforts to bring together research projects and data that illuminate various aspects of jail incarceration, including in-custody conditions, post-release experiences, and the perspectives of particularly vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants, in a centralized location.”

The project builds on UCI’s strengths as an emerging institutional leader for community-research collaborations around incarceration and for uplifting the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, the researchers noted in their proposal. 

Examples include the university’s LIFTED (Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees), the first UC B.A. program for incarcerated students; the Underground Scholars Initiative; and PrisonPandemic, the country’s only archive of stories by incarcerated people during the pandemic.

The “Jails as Hidden Institutions” project aims to bring together UCI faculty from myriad disciplines and community stakeholders, build shared resources and data infrastructure on jails, and pilot innovative data collection and analytic methods to increase transparency and knowledge about jails and health inequalities. 

Specifically, the researchers aim to:

  • Establish cross-disciplinary academic partnerships and deepen existing community-research collaborations around a unified vision for large external grant applications.
  • Develop a cohesive jail data infrastructure, bringing together research projects that use administrative data, archival materials, interviews, and participant observation to strengthen shared institutional resources for external grant applications.
  • Conduct pilot data collection and analytic methods relating to research projects to produce proof-of-concept evidence in support of external grant applications.
  • Work collaboratively to develop and submit grant applications for submission in Spring 2025.

“Millions of people — the majority of whom haven’t been convicted of any crime — experience jail incarceration each year,” Turney says. “Jail incarceration can be quite destabilizing, leading to job loss, housing instability, and strained familial relationships. This seed funding will allow us to begin building a comprehensive data infrastructure for understanding the repercussions of jail incarceration and will provide considerable support for external grant applications.”

— Mimi Ko Cruz