Ellen Degeneres took some heat for comparing her comedic remarks comparing pandemic lockdown conditions to “being in jail” during the initial stages of the quarantine in March 2020. The fact of the matter is that she really might not have been too far off.
From Mid-March 2020 through the end of May that year, the world was confronted with an unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus. Shuttering in place, many experienced loneliness, anxiety, depression, and a range of mental health challenges. Shortly after the onset of COVID-19, groups reacted quickly to study the effects on those shut in. Psychologists and mental health professionals treated the effects of confinement and isolation like it was something new. It was not!
The trauma associated with confinement is well understood. Identical findings published prior to the Order keeping people home detail the effects of incarceration and results after release from time spent in a controlled environment, along with the isolation that comes with it.
Meaningful treatments for these conditions are back-burner issues for prisoners. Many who enter the system from reception to release do not fully comprehend the impact in real-time as they try to adjust or re-enter society. Most former prisoners released do not identify or confuse sensory deprivation with a horrific lack of self-esteem or their life position as worthless.
Labeled as “Quarantine Induced Social Anxiety,” similarities are striking when the comparison is made to “Post-Incarceration Syndrome.” A host of coping mechanisms are prevalent in both categories. Excessive alcohol and substance abuse are commonplace in the retrieved data as many attempts to acclimate. Some ultimately give up, considering their efforts futile. The combined challenges seriously affect mental well-being with moving forward.
For the first time in history, Americans’ free movement was restricted without being sentenced or committed, leaving a large part of our population shut in. Daily routines changed on a dime.
People were forbidden to attend funerals when loved ones passed away. Many sought online therapy and were able to grieve in a different form through Zoom. Weddings with loved ones in attendance were canceled, as were graduations, holiday parties, baseball games, and more. There was a distinct feeling of loss identical to what inmates experienced during their time in stir.
Comparing this scenario, the two situations differ in intensity; if a family member dies while an individual is serving prison time, you are escorted to the Chaplain’s office, where you receive the news and are allowed a single phone call. Once the institutional staff is advised of the death, you are determined a flight risk or possibly a risk to yourself. Depending on where you are lodged and your classification status, the institutional policy may call for a transfer to a single empty cell without your belongings, referred to as “special housing.” There, the effects of isolation spike dramatically. The grieving process stops as none of the other components our minds need to process the loss is unavailable, with nothing left but to bury the pain.
Those isolated in custody are considered “second-class citizens,” while the mindset favors “lock’m up and throw away the key” as the first order of business. The most basic forms of humane consideration, like courtesy and care are abandoned.
As the quarantine moved forward, attention was paid to studies highlighting the urgent need to develop interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of students and the general population. They detected a significant rise in suicidal tendencies.
While I was serving a term of imprisonment at Northern State Prison in 2019, I was classified as a paralegal, or what is referred to as “substitute counsel,” defending inmates who violated prison policy. Disciplinary hearings were conducted for each violation. Prohibited Acts ranged from spitting on the sidewalk to murdering your cellmate. Most of which came with segregation from the general population to periods of confinement in isolation.
While a Bill was pending in hopes of Governor Phil Murphy’s signature (“The Isolate Confinement Restrict Act – A314/53261”), I wrote a letter identifying some alarming behavior I witnessed after periods of one’s time spent in the “Hole” and its effects one-year prior to COVID restrictions on the outside.
Injury to humans placed in isolation, similar to what Killer Whales experience in captivity, is detailed in the documentary “Blackfish.” The film depicts events that describe the effects of confinement on Killer Whales as “show animals.” Once they are penned in tanks with no room to move, compared to their life in the wild, they experience anxiety and stress.
There is no report on record of an Orca killing or acting violently against a human in their natural habitat. Yet, they have turned on their trainers and handlers while in captivity. Some of the Orcas take on the role of the bully and physically abuse the weaker mammals. Physical abnormalities manifest with their fins drooping and motor skills changing. The few released back into the wild are shunned by pods of their peers and often die shortly after.
Time in “Administrative Segregation” brings about abnormal, unusual, and unnatural behavior. Throwing bodily fluid is a prohibited act and is seen exclusively in isolation. Time alone seems to disengage people from normal thoughts or deductive reasoning. Throwing one’s bodily fluids at another human being is hardly contemplated in society.
During COVID, I remained in touch with many on the inside, providing paralegal assistance and helping with appeals and post-conviction matters. During the lockdown, inmates were allowed ten to twenty minutes out of their cells in groups of two for showers and use of the email system. Many with life sentences took serious steps to end their lives by requesting a cell change with someone infected. This plan had a two-fold edge; If the request were granted, the “Lifer” would catch the virus ending it all. With that, a unique but strange thought process where they believe their death would cheat their jailers out of remaining decades in prison.
I don’t intend to conclude or suggest who had it worse. Some watched reports trying to make sense of many who suffered from COVID isolation because they couldn’t get their nails done or hair cut as trauma.
Locked up in a six-by-nine cell restricting physical movement to four steps in length and three steps in width for twenty-three hours daily are significantly different from Ellen’s time in her fifteen-million-dollar home. However, her light-hearted comedic comments could inadvertently awaken something that will dovetail into change for the greater good.
These conditions may not have equal weight, but the emotions and their effects are spot on.
There is no “New Normal.”
Bob Kosch is the host of Greater Good Radio and Sunday Supper with Vito on WOR in New York City. He is also the Executive Producer of “When Comedy Went to School” on PBS.