Prisons make fertile breeding grounds for viruses, yet administrations have revealed little about the pandemic’s impact on Europe’s prisons. In this collaborative investigation, 12 newsrooms across Europe manually collected data from 32 countries about COVID-19 cases, deaths and vaccinations in prisons. The results show how overcrowding and overincarceration have exacerbated an already difficult situation, with human rights often taking a back seat in administrations’ efforts to contain the virus. The findings were published in a range of outlets in at least 13 languages, from Europe-wide overviews to national reports from countries such as France, Greece, Italy or Hungary.
Our goal was to allow each partner newsroom to find and tell their own stories using the data from this collaboration, which is why we shared not only the collected data among all partners, but also all interview materials and data for visualizations created by any participant. As a result, more than 10 outlets around Europe covered this story or some angle of it, with many translating into multiple languages. We also published across multiple platforms, including social media in the form of Instagram stories, or explainer threads. We also found that some prison administrations who were uncooperative before, when presented with the results of our investigation, were suddenly eager to provide more data shortly before publication. Our results and methodology have also been studied by international researchers and activists who report on Covid-19 behind bars in their contexts.
Our main challenge was to keep everyone on the same page across 12 newsrooms throughout Europe. We used Jitsi, Slack and good old-fashioned Email to stay in touch, meeting online in full strength roughly once a month to recap our progress and set milestones for the next stretch. Since much of the data had to be manually requested or collated from a variety of sources, the actual investigation was relatively low-tech: A Google sheets database with detailed documentation on how to enter data formed the basis of our collection. Later, we shared interview transcripts, story structures, data and graphics with partners via Google Drive. We used GitHub to publish our methodology, as well as our data and the code used to analyze and visualize it in R.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One core issue, and one of the main reason this investigation is necessary, is that prison administrations don’t collect or report COVID data in any standardized way. For most countries, data had to be requested via phone or email. The granularity, completeness, level of detail and definitions used varied widely across countries. To create a coherent dataset from this information patchwork, we went to great lengths to establish detailed documentation all participants could follow during the data collection process. The collection process itself was painstaking and time-consuming, and only made possible through the hard work and combined language skills of the partners. Finally, we aimed for full transparency in methodology and data: In addition to the stories themselves, we published a full account of our methodology, the full content and sources of our database, and the programming code used to analyze the data, such that all readers and interested parties are able scrutinize and reuse our work.
What can others learn from this project?
We were very successful at organizing collaboration across a variety of newsrooms and countries. EDJNet’s concept for organizing their data units can be a model for similar initiatives. We strive to make it easy for colleagues to learn from our experience by sharing our learnings, for example in online behind-the-scenes discussions, at conferences or through our public methodology accounts. We also set ourselves high standards for the documentation, transparency and reproducibility of our methodology – standards that could be employed for other investigations as well, especially where complex data is collated manually.