Ellen DeGeneres — broadcasting from home a few weeks ago for the first episode of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” after a three-week hiatus — told the world that coronavirus self-isolation was “like being in jail. It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.”
I didn’t find the joke funny at all. DeGeneres was self-isolating in her mansion in Beverly Hills — a house with square footage most of us can only dream of. And inside that mansion, lit by the California sun, DeGeneres has many choices — and access to care if she needs it — unlike the real inmates who are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic at an alarming rate.
And it’s not just DeGeneres. If you take a look at any social media platform, you’ll see thousands of posts comparing coronavirus self-quarantine to a prison sentence, as if it’s even remotely comparable.
The quarantine-as-jail comparison cuts through me. It’s not because quarantine isn’t deeply challenging — in particular for those with mental illness, without income or with an abusive partner. It’s because we simply don’t get to be that reductive.
I have two immediate family members who have served prison sentences, one for 13 years and one for five. There is no way for me to understand their incarceration, but I have felt the reverberations of their lack of freedom.
My father went into Riverfront State Prison in Camden, New Jersey, from 1994 to 1999 — during my formative years. I was 10. Like a ghost, he simply vanished, and letters kept us loosely tethered. He became abstract to me at that young age. A memory.
My former stepfather was also released from prison just last year after 13 years.
Both served time for nonviolent crimes, a result of a system that punishes people — rather than rehabilitates them — for mental health crises and drug addiction issues. Both have my full compassion.
Discounting The Reality Of The Incarcerated
Knowing their experiences led me to work for PEN America’s Prison Writing Program while I was in graduate school, and that program gave me the opportunity to encourage incarcerated people to write poetry and stories, and to share resources with which they could learn about writing.
DeGeneres — and the many people tweeting about their so-called prison of self-isolation — are discounting the reality of the incarcerated.
Where we have books, television, a phone and a window — many of us even venture out for solo walks and outdoor time — many incarcerated people find themselves crammed into tiny, dark, dank spaces without options, without protective masks or gear and, for many, without medical treatment.
When DeGeneres used her platform and privilege to joke about the experiences of incarcerated people, I talked to my father.
“Dad,” I said. “What the hell? What would you even say to that?”
My father replied: “At home, you are surrounded by loved ones, and you have the freedom to express yourself physically and mentally.” And even in quarantine, he added, “you are able to choose whether you want to lie down or sleep or eat or bathe. Whenever you want.”
In prison, my father said, “you are surrounded by dangerous people, treated like the worst scum by your jailers, and you have no freedom, no rights and no choice.”
My father told me about the time someone started a fight with him. He defended himself and was punished by being put into solitary confinement for two weeks — with a broken jaw. When he finally received medical attention, his jaw was wired shut, and he was thrown back into the hole.
“In prison,” my father said, “you’re living in a cell not fit for an animal — let alone a human being — sharing space with a stranger that doesn’t care if you live or die. You live with only survival on your mind.” For incarcerated people today, he said, “they are extremely vulnerable — with no access to relevant facts regarding the pandemic.”
My father summed it up clearly, honestly and painfully: “Ultimately, at home you still have choices and you have access to information.”
Our Obligation To Speak Responsibly
So if it isn’t clear yet, life in quarantine is difficult, yes— but it is not the same as life in prison. And when we use our language so flippantly — even if our intentions are to joke — we diminish the suffering of the incarcerated, many of whom received unfair prison sentences based on racism or because they did not have the money to defend themselves.
While DeGeneres lounges in her massive mansion in the hills, a telemedicine call away from any sort of medical help or mental health care, a click of a button away from ordering a protective mask, cossetted with the luxury of outdoor space, sunlight, movement and food delivery, I think of the 92% of inmates in an Indiana prison who tested positive for COVID-19. I think of the sick inmates who won’t get tested or treated and of the inmates who will die alone in dingy cells.
In the end, this crisis affects all of us, especially the most at-risk populations. Many — but not all — incarcerated people are in prison for heinous crimes, but we still have an obligation to use our language responsibly. We are not “stuck” inside our homes. We are staying safely inside our homes so that we can flatten the curve and so that the medical system can catch up with the numbers.
Language matters. It is a powerful tool for change and for advocacy, and we each — on whatever platform we have—must live up to our responsibility to speak with accountability and respect.
A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter