Bozelko column: Ellen DeGeneres was right - you are in jail
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
In her first show from her home during the COVID-19 quarantine on April 6, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres said she felt like she was in jail. After a predictable and petulant mass attack on DeGeneres’ apparent privilege and lack of concern for the people who are taking the brunt of the novel coronavirus - essential workers and inmates - she took down the video of the show on April 8.
As someone who spent 2,293 days in jail - 75 of them in solitary confinement - I know the ways in which Ellen’s joke missed the mark. But I’m not looking to silence her for this; I wish the conversation had lasted. It’s OK to react to confinement by thinking it’s punishing because it is. Rather than pushing back against the comedian in woke splendor, we should use this as an opportunity for a larger conversation about confinement and its costs.
We’re all doing time; people are living like inmates. They’re separated from family; visits are banned just like they are now in correctional facilities. Their food choices have narrowed based on supply. While the coronavirus lockdown is nowhere near as bad as actual incarceration, where people are allowed to make a handful of decisions per day as compared to thousands by the average free person, our choices are proscribed now and there’s nothing wrong with even a multi-millionaire celebrity saying that it hurts.
Criminal justice reform advocates remind the public often that mistreating inmates and violating human rights backfires on society with recidivism and increased costs, but we’re rarely able to take a black Sharpie and draw direct lines between the treatment of those inside and the wellness of those outside and show how people are harmed by our corrections systems. The COVID-19 pandemic gives us an unprecedented ability to make those connections explicitly.
The spread of the disease inside threatens your life outside because institutional living amplifies infections. The lack of sanitation inside jails and prisons will directly affect the rates of infection in the places they’re located; Columbia University epidemiologists who published a study before the pandemic found that jails and prisons raise the infectious disease mortality rate for the surrounding county by 9%.
Incarceration’s threat to the public isn’t limited to public health. The health crisis is as bad as the destabilization of the economy, which has never been helped by mass incarceration. The American tradition of locking wrongdoers away from society pulls $1 trillion out of the country’s economic system every year in lost wages and possibilities, according to research by Washington University in St. Louis. The opportunity costs of prison visitation alone - an activity that’s been proven to reduce recidivism - cost the visitors $1 billion in lost wages every year. The price of phone calls empties another $1 billion out of the economy, says The Prison Policy Initiative. Decarceration itself is a stimulus strategy.
Some hope that the mass quarantine might cause its victims to develop a certain empathy toward people who are confined. It’s possible but not likely. Most everyone knows that prison can be torturous but many don’t care; the only question left is whether it’s deserved. Our capacity to approve of abusive conditions for people who break the social contract is quite elastic.
But now that quarantine is providing evidence that mass incarceration endangers them more than it protects them, the public might start to question the utility of sequestering people in disease incubators and directing so much money and resources to that practice that we can’t prop up our economy.
Granted, DeGeneres’s quarantine in sunny Southern California is a lot more luxurious than most people’s daily routines now, so her complaining about it may have been gauche.
But I’m still glad she said it, because it serves as a starting point for us to examine exactly what we do to ourselves with the punitivity we practice on others every day. If we take a cue from Ellen’s words, we can inquire more as to why we run an ineffective and inhumane criminal legal system, one that endangers rather than protects all of us.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.