Earlier this month, Ellen DeGeneres attracted public ire for something she said during the first “at home” edition of her show. Sitting in one of her palatial houses, the 62-year-old comedian joked that self-isolation is “like being in jail … mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.” The video was removed from her YouTube channel following swift backlash, but DeGeneres isn’t the only entertainer who has made glib remarks about quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, the Game of Thrones actor Sophie Turner told Conan O’Brien that quarantine is “prison” for her husband, the singer Joe Jonas, because he’s “a real social butterfly.”
In some other climate, these hyperbolic comparisons might simply register as thoughtless. Now, after months of reports chronicling the harrowing conditions in jails and prisons, they come off as particularly callous. Being restricted from public gatherings may be frustrating, but even Turner and DeGeneres would admit that it’s nothing like what correctional facilities face. In Colorado and Louisiana, Illinois and New York, incarcerated people are dying of the virus—sometimes while handcuffed—because jails and prisons are incompatible with the measures required to keep them safe. Social distancing is impossible. Even on a normal day, accessing medical care is a Sisyphean task. Crowded and unhygienic conditions are common. As a result, the infection rates in these institutions far outpace those of even the hardest-hit American cities.
But although the oppressiveness of quarantine and the dangers of incarceration during a pandemic aren’t the same, they’re more related than many might think. The media have widely covered the devastating effects of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, as well as the risks that an outbreak among inmates poses to the surrounding communities. When taken alongside Americans’ experiences with nationwide forced isolation, these facts could change how the public thinks of carceral punishment. Because the coronavirus’s lethality is unprecedented, so, too, are the social-distancing and lockdown measures that are forcing many Americans to experience prolonged confinement for the first time. Following several years of slow, sometimes bipartisan, attempts to reform the criminal-justice system and its reliance on mass incarceration, these powerful new realities could challenge entrenched beliefs about the efficacy—and ethics—of sending people “away.”