In 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, a team of academic researchers at UNC began the Covid Prison Project, recognizing and responding to the lack of health data being tracked publicly within American prisons. The unavailability or, in many cases, absence of information paralleled the inequities and injustices within the carceral system and its ripple effects on communities. But this data scarcity isn’t limited to Covid-19; it’s a much deeper problem that must be continued to be addressed. That’s why the Third City Project was born.
The Third City Project promotes data transparency for the complete physical, mental, and social well-being of those individuals and communities impacted by the criminal legal system, shining light on the data behind its walls. We envision a future in which widespread investment in health justice replaces the need for carceral systems. So long as these systems exist, we will analyze the data, advise on best practices, and fight for the rights of those affected by carceral systems.
Information. Access. Justice.


Populations are a moving target and subject to change year-to-year. This has been especially true during the pandemic, during which point-in-time populations decreased by 14% in the first half of 2020. Most population numbers (including many reports published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) reflect point-in-time population, or totals of all people who are incarcerated as of a single date. This makes it difficult to extract the precise number of people who churn through the system each year.

To that end, “third city” was selected from various estimates and attempts to conservatively quantify current population + churn. We selected this name knowing that the exact ranking may change annually and over time. Our hope was to invite the project audience to imagine the social math of “a third city” made up entirely of prison and jail populations, outside of public view.

There were 549,100 individuals in local jails as of June 2020. However, this point-in-time population does not reflect “jail churn,” in which people quickly cycle in and out of facilities. In 2020, it was estimated that there are 10.6 million admissions to jails, meaning that the unique number of individuals who come under the custody of jails is much higher than BJS estimates.

The 3rd City Project is guided by the belief that the criminal-legal system, as it currently exists, harms more than it helps. The United States incarcerates too many for too long, under too dangerous of conditions. We envision a world in which legal punishments are meted out safely, equitably, and while preserving the dignity of all involved in the process. But this dream is not yet reality. 

We believe that any approach to correcting the business of corrections must encompass those who have been, those who currently are, and those who will be incarcerated in the future. Research and advocacy aimed at improving the conditions in which people are currently live is part and parcel of an equitable strategy. 

We are mindful that not all problems can be solved by reform alone. Calling for the improvement of conditions is not a tacit approval for the harms of the criminal-legal system to continue. 

Our position is not in opposition to, but in unison with those advocating for change. Our work is grounded in solutions-based strategies. Our focus will always be the residents of America’s 3rd City.

The 3rd City project provides data on incarceration and health outcomes to all interested parties. We welcome conversations with individuals doing grassroots work. To contact us, use our contact form.

The 3rd City project cannot offer legal advice or legal assistance. However, we invite you to look at our Resources page for contact information. While we cannot offer direct services, we are happy to provide referrals to organizations that can. Use our contact form.


Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein

Founder and Principal Investigator

Forrest Behne

Policy Analyst

Chris Corsi

Project Support

Zaire Culliins

Lead Research Assistant

Jason Hu

Research Assistant

Jennifer Lao

Lead Research Assistant

Kate Lemasters

Graduate Research Assistant

Morgan Maner

Project Support

Harshi Matada

Research Assistant

Aylin Memili

Graduate Research Assistant

Sarah Morgan

Lab Manager

Craig Waleed

Project Support

Alice Zhang

Research Assistant