How The Pandemic Has Played Out Behind Bars : Short Wave In the year since the pandemic began, the coronavirus has severely impacted inmates and staff in U.S. jails and prisons. According to The Marshall Project, in the last year, over 380,000 prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus. Of those, 2,400 died. The close quarters make social distancing nearly impossible, leaving the incarcerated population vulnerable.

Josiah Bates, staff writer at TIME, reflects on how the pandemic has played out behind bars — in both jails and prisons. We also hear from Ronnie Hoagland Jr., who contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated in a Texas county jail.
NPR logo

A Year Into The Pandemic, The Incarcerated Among The Most Vulnerable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/975299744/976288226" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Year Into The Pandemic, The Incarcerated Among The Most Vulnerable

A Year Into The Pandemic, The Incarcerated Among The Most Vulnerable

A Year Into The Pandemic, The Incarcerated Among The Most Vulnerable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/975299744/976288226" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island complex, 2011. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island complex, 2011.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the year since the pandemic began, the coronavirus has severely impacted those held in U.S. jails and prisons.

According to The Marshall Project, over 380,000 prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus between March 2020 and March 2021. Of those, 2,400 died. The close quarters makes social distancing nearly impossible, leaving the incarcerated population vulnerable.

States and local facilities have been inconsistent in providing tests, PPE, cleaning supplies, and medical care to inmates. And while some jurisdictions released individuals — especially older inmates or those with pre-existing conditions — to reduce transmission, the decarceration efforts didn't last long.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ) estimates that the infection rate in the prison population is 3.7 times higher than the national rate. They estimated the mortality rate is double, when adjusted for age, sex, and race and ethnicity.

NPR Short Wave reporter Emily Kwong speaks with Ronnie Hoagland Jr., who contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated in a Texas county jail.

We also hear from Josiah Bates, staff writer at TIME, on how the pandemic has played out behind bars — and how that raises far-reaching questions about the criminal justice system.

Bates covers criminal justice, gun violence, and social issues for TIME. You can read his reporting on COVID-19 and criminal justice here:

Special thanks to Krish Gundu and other advocates for the Texas Jail Project for their help with this reporting. The Texas Jail Project is dedicated to listening to, informing, and advocating on behalf of people held in county jails. You can read their pre-trial stories here.

This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, fact checked by Rasha Aridi, and edited by Viet Le. The audio engineer for this episode was Alex Drewenskus.