COVID and Cages: Graduate Center Researchers Map How Prisons Responded to the Pandemic

August 12, 2020

Ph.D. student Olivia Ildefonso and alumna Celeste Wilson talk about their project, which visualizes data about prison releases related to the pandemic.

Ph.D. student Olivia Ildefonso (left) and alumna Celeste Wilson
Ph.D. student Olivia Ildefonso (left) and alumna Celeste Wilson

The incarcerated are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and scholars interested in social justice see this as a convergence of two public-health issues — both the illness itself and the crisis represented by the United States’ prison population, which is the highest in the world. 

The COVID-19 and Cages Mapping Project is led by Celeste Winston (Ph.D. ’19, Earth and Environmental Sciences), now an assistant professor at Temple University, and Ph.D. student Olivia Ildefonso (Earth and Environmental Sciences), a GC Digital Fellow who completed a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) certificate at Hunter College. We recently spoke to Winston and Ildefonso about their project, which visualizes data about prison releases related to the pandemic.

How state prisons responded to the first wave of covid chart


The Graduate Center: What led you to start this mapping project?

Ildefonso: The project started from the GC Digital Initiatives. I’m a Digital Fellow, and I help to run the GIS/Mapping Working Group on CUNY Academic Commons. When COVID hit New York City, I thought it would be amazing if we could get all these GIS scholars together with activists and start making maps to understand how COVID is going to affect already vulnerable populations. So we had a brainstorming session, and four projects were birthed from that session. COVID & Cages was one of the projects. 

Winston: There were maybe six or so who helped brainstorm ideas for this project. From there it was a process of seeing what kind of maps were already being produced around the topic of incarcerated people and COVID-19, and seeing what type of unique contributions we could add. We now have two completed maps that we collaborated with the Covid Prison Project at the University of North Carolina to publish. 

My inspiration around this project was to try to figure out how to extend the question of how do we keep people who are incarcerated safe from COVID-19, and expand that into a larger question of how to think about incarceration and police and prison abolition more broadly.

GC: One of your maps focuses on counties in Pennsylvania that received re-entrants through the state’s temporary reprieve program. What did you find in terms of how a county’s percentage of Black residents relates to its proportion of prisoners who were released?

Ildefonso: For me the most telling thing about that map is how few people are actually getting out. It’s single digits in those counties. They have this program, but we’re still seeing so few people getting out. 

But just looking at that very limited number who are being let out and sent back home, we’re seeing that counties that tend to be more white and have a higher median income tend to have more people who are coming back home. We don’t have enough data to say this is a huge trend, but from the small amount of people who are being let out, we can see some correlation already. 

GC: There has been a lot of attention on policing and social justice in recent months. Do you see incarceration as a topic that is likely to gain more mainstream attention? What do you hope the public might come to understand?

Winston: I think that a growing group of people — from everyday people joining the protests this summer, to local and state governments — are now beginning to think more critically about incarceration and take more critical policy stances. The pandemic has been an opening for many people to see these issues that have been exacerbated by the current crisis, and also to think expansively about what a safe and healthy world looks like, post-pandemic. 

GC: What do you hope will happen next with this project?

Ildefonso: A lot of the original conversations were about how can we make a map that would be useful for abolitionist organizations like Critical Resistance, working on the ground. We’re hoping this can be used as a tool for activism.