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

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

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

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Hello. You have a call at no expense to you from...

RONNIE HOAGLAND: Ronnie Hoagland.

AUTOMATED VOICE: ...An inmate at Nacogdoches County Jail. To accept this call, press or say...


This is Ronnie Hoagland Jr.


HOAGLAND: I've only got 10 minutes on this phone call left.

KWONG: Ronnie has been incarcerated in the Nacogdoches County Jail in Texas since the end of June. Within weeks of arriving, he started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

HOAGLAND: Fever, sweating - I was laying in my bunk two or three nights. I was - OK, I placed a medical request in to medical.

KWONG: And when a jail nurse checked his vitals...

HOAGLAND: The nurse was shocked enough to order me to go to the hospital. My heartbeat was 37 to 38 beats per minute. I had been so dehydrated already throughout this facility.

KWONG: He says a coronavirus test then came back positive, and it was a terrifying experience. Ronnie felt like there was nothing he could really do to protect himself from contracting COVID-19.

HOAGLAND: Inside these walls, there was never a six-foot social distancing. What was going through my mind is, oh, my God, everybody's dying from this, and I'm being stuck in this jail. I'm going to die inside of jail. That's something I never wanted.

KWONG: Now, there's been no reported deaths from COVID-19 within this jail, but there's been a lot of documented cases of coronavirus. At one point last year, Nacogdoches County Jail had over 100 cases. That's over a third of the jail population, and over a dozen corrections officers were out sick with it, too. So in response, County Sheriff Jason Bridges told the local station KLTV that the jail was contracting with a lab for regular testing, and that helped get the outbreak under control.

But what happened at Nacogdoches is no surprise. Some of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. have happened at correctional facilities, in jails and in prisons. The infection rate in the prison population is more than three times higher than in the general public, and the mortality rate is double when adjusted for age, sex and race and ethnicity. That's according to a recent study by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

So today on the show, a year now into the pandemic, we wanted to look at how the virus swept through jails and prisons, affecting the health and wellbeing of those behind bars. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: I called up Josiah Bates, a staff writer at Time, for this conversation. He covers criminal justice and race, and when the pandemic was declared, he immediately pivoted to that with questions about how this would affect inmates. And the first place he looked was Rikers Island in New York. The jail complex holds thousands of individuals, and he wanted to know how a respiratory virus would play out there once it got inside.

JOSIAH BATES: The first person I spoke with for that story was a corrections officer at Rikers who was just explaining, like, the circumstances. Like, the jail administrators weren't giving them a lot of information. They weren't giving them any real guidance on what to do. Inmates started getting scared and weren't sure, you know, what to do, how to protect themselves. So I basically just wrote a piece looking at how it was just a warning sign for what was to come, and unfortunately, that came true where you have, you know, prisons and jails all across the country that were greatly impacted by the spread.

KWONG: Yeah. Can you describe what conditions are like in jails and prisons?

BATES: Yeah. So, I mean, the way they're set up is basically inmates typically live in very close quarters with one another. There's not a whole lot of space for people to spread out. There are some, you know, common areas, but it's really a tight-knit space. And more than that, in normal times, you know, jails and prisons aren't typically cleaned consistently enough where you would feel just like you're in a clean space. And then also, you know, inmates wouldn't typically have access to cleaning supplies, and people aren't able to practice social distancing.

So, you know, prisons are a little different because some of those, you know, inmates might have their own personal room. They're usually bigger than, like, a city jail, where people are supposed to just be kind of in and out, like, you know, waiting to go to court or whatever. But Rikers, for example - like, people don't have their own rooms. Like, people - there's areas where people are just sleeping in, like, one big room, and the beds are, like, maybe a few inches away from each other. So regardless of how much space, you know, inmates have in prisons or jails, because it's so confined and people aren't - the inmates themselves aren't going in and out, it would be easier for the virus to spread.

KWONG: So, Josiah, you spoke to prisoners over the phone during the pandemic. What did they tell you over the phone?

BATES: Basically, what I heard, you know, from the beginning, you know, in the first few months and weeks, like, a lot of inmates - they just weren't getting information from the prisons and the jails on what was happening. I spoke with one inmate in - who was in a D.C. jail, and he was telling me that just to get the information on what was happening, like, they were all watching the news, like, in the common area, and that's how they were learning. That's how they were figuring out what was going on. I spoke with the wife of one inmate in late March who - you know, she said that her husband and other inmates, they weren't getting hand sanitizer or bleach because those were considered contraband. All they were given was a bar of soap.

So I think in the beginning, it was just not getting the information, but then obviously, as time went on, you know, the biggest fear was just, you know, not knowing if your bunkmate has COVID, not knowing if you have it and just wanting to protect yourself and not being able to. You know, they basically had all the same concerns, you know, us in the public had. The only difference is that they didn't have the ability to protect themselves the same way we did.

KWONG: Yeah. I'm wondering, Josiah, how you would describe the virus' spread through U.S. prisons throughout the course of the year. And I know that every state and every county - and there's a difference between the federal and state and local jurisdiction of these facilities. But how would you describe how the virus played out in U.S. prisons throughout the course of the year?

BATES: I mean, I definitely think it - you know, the fears of it spreading widely were realized. The issue is we don't have conclusive data on just how bad it got. You know, different news organizations have put out their estimates and stuff. And I think the one that, you know, I refer to a lot is the one the Marshall Project did, where they estimated that over 275,000 inmates tested positive and that there were over 1,700 deaths.

KWONG: Right. And these are numbers from December.

BATES: Yes. It's very likely that the true death toll was much higher than that. So we just don't have conclusive data, but we do know that it did spread widely across prisons and jails. Now, different states, you know, responded differently to it. The one thing that a lot of experts, activists and prison doctors were saying is that they were pushing for the release of prisoners to stop the spread of the virus in the facilities, basically saying, like, that's the only real way to stop it from spreading as widely.

But, you know, different states reacted to that differently. Like, some cities released inmates. Others didn't, and that was a real point of contention, I think. There are reports now that we're starting to see cities returning to their pre-pandemic numbers of inmates. So even though we're not out of the pandemic yet, it looks like prisons and jails are filling back up.

KWONG: Josiah, why are we back where we started? I don't know if you have an answer to that question, but like you said, the pandemic's nowhere near over.

BATES: Yeah.

KWONG: And yet we're back there. And why is that?

BATES: Yeah. It's - I mean, there's probably multiple reasons. I think one thing - you know, people aren't worrying about the prison and jail population. Like, that's not something I think most people care that much about, especially with the pandemic. They feel like we should be worrying more about, I guess, quote, unquote, "more vulnerable citizens." But it's like, you know, those are - the people that are in these prisons and these jails - like, they're vulnerable as well.

KWONG: I mean, everything you're saying is - from, like, an epidemiological standpoint, from a medical standpoint, very logical, right? It's just people's bodies and the virus.

BATES: Yeah.

KWONG: But, like, there's a disconnect between that logic and then the bigger conversation about how this country views mass incarceration and the incarcerated.

BATES: Yes. And I do think, like, you know, COVID-19 has changed the way society is set up and stuff. I do think the same can be said about its impact on the criminal justice system. You know, you've had activists and people talking about mass incarceration in prisons for decades and, like, the issues with it and all the problems with it. But I think COVID is just one of those things that really showed us what issues we have within our criminal justice system, particularly with our prisons and jails.

So hopefully, we can take a real look at our criminal justice system, at, you know, mass incarceration, look at the way COVID-19 impacted it and assess, like, what changes we can make to improve it because the way it's set up now, it's just not effective.

KWONG: So before we go, I want to touch upon vaccines. In prisons and jails, it's kind of a patchwork picture, with states and local jurisdictions ultimately deciding who gets the vaccine and when. The CDC says corrections staff should get priority and that inmates should be vaccinated at the same time because they live in close quarters. But so far, according to the Prison Policy Institute, only 10 states have specified that incarcerated people should be among the first people to receive the vaccine.


KWONG: As for Ronnie Hoagland at Nacogdoches, he has since recovered from COVID-19 and is awaiting trial on a drug charge, but the state of Texas told the courts they can suspend trials until June 1. And there's a big backlog of cases, which leaves Ronnie's case in limbo and Ronnie likely incarcerated for months.

HOAGLAND: My mom, she's 65. My dad's 66. And they're saying, well, bubba, we're getting our shot. All we can do is keep praying. I've got my family. They're church-oriented, and they're a loving family. They want me to come home. They want this pandemic to be over with. But all they do is tell me that all I can do is keep praying.


KWONG: For this episode, I want to extend our thanks to Krish Gundu and other advocates with the Texas Jail Project. Krish and her team connected us to Ronnie and other inmates in Texas. This episode was produced by Thomas Liu, fact-checked by Rasha Aridi and edited by Viet Le. The audio engineer for this episode was Alex Drewenskus. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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