I remember speaking with a friend on the phone during the tumultuous early days of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was waiting in a block-long line of masked, panicked shoppers at a Wegmans near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, hoping to procure some toilet paper. I was five months into a 12-month sentence on Rikers Island. The entire nation of Italy had just gone into lockdown, she told me, citing an article that described the country as a "beautiful prison."
She hurriedly added that this was, of course, absurd. Being stuck at home, she said, was nothing like prison. It was clear to me that she was saying this for my benefit. I rank pretty highly on just about any privilege scale you could come up with; people don't usually go out of their way to make sure they're not offending me with what they say, so it stands out when they do.
"The comparisons of self-quarantine to incarceration are countless," I wrote in my jail journal on March 31, 2020, noting that only days earlier, the New York Times food section had published a number of recipes designed to "make sheltering feel less like a sentence."
Of course, quarantining and being imprisoned are not the same. People outside were dealing with long lines at the grocery store, while those of us behind bars had to go on strike just to get hand soap and cleaning products. More importantly, our demands also included the release of high risk prisoners as well as those with short sentences for nonviolent offenses, echoing a statement produced only days earlier by the Board of Correction. We actually won and in less than 24 hours, nearly all of the men in my dormitory were released. They simply walked out the door.
Our strike contributed to the release of 30 percent of the island's total incarcerated population, including over 75 percent of sentenced prisoners like myself. Three months later, only 13 percent had been rearrested, most for minor offenses. If we lived in a society that actually invested in things like healthcare, housing, employment, and feeding the hungry, rather than policing and prisons, that number would no doubt be even lower.
This is the first lesson I learned from surviving the first wave of COVID-19 in jail, that a significant proportion of those behind bars could be released immediately and things would be just fine. Between the lockdowns and the uprisings following George Floyd's murder, making sense of 2020's national crime rates is notoriously difficult. However, it is clear that no city saw a spike in crime due to people being released from incarceration.
A Black mother exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the system that keeps her behind bars. "Though my children have grown up to be extraordinary young men, in society's eyes, they will always be statistics. We are much more than society's labels."
Perhaps arguing for the release of 30-75 percent of incarcerated people feels like a low bar, or even a betrayal to the principle of freeing them all. But if "free them all" is good enough for me as a rhetorical device, "free a lot of them right now" is good enough for me as a practical starting point—even if it makes for a less catchy hashtag.
The crux of this lesson is in its immediacy. I am as loath as the next abolitionist to split those behind bars into groups of those who "deserve" to be released and those who do not, and I know all too well what it feels like to be left behind. I and a handful of others were forced to stay and serve out the remainder of our sentences. Yet, I also recall the joy I felt when I realized that my friends were going home. A huge number of incarcerated people could be allowed to go home, right now, and there would not be chaos in the streets. On the contrary, we would all be better off for it.
The second lesson I learned is perhaps more controversial, and it has to do with the comparison between quarantine and prison that my friend made on the phone—a comparison I just couldn't shake. "Quarantine resembles incarceration" seems like the sort of thing you're not supposed to say, because it opens up a window for self important people to rail about how their confinement was "like being in jail" à la Ellen DeGeneres.
But for every first wave article decrying claims of similarity, there was another attesting to formerly incarcerated people relying on their time behind bars to make it through quarantine. I used to offer advice to my friends quarantined at home about the routines I had developed to help me pass the time in jail.
I was released in October 2020, and dealt with smaller, rolling lockdowns over the next six months or so, during which time I drew heavily upon the same skill set. They call it lockdown for a reason, after all.
The comparison also abounds in literature and philosophy. In Discipline and Punish, for example, Michel Foucault describes "the plague-stricken town" as a sort of precursor to the infamous panopticon. Albert Camus' novel The Plague includes numerous descriptions of those in quarantine as being in prison, including terms like "prisoners of the plague" and "prison-house[s]."
The quote Camus chose for the book's epigraph speaks volumes in its own right: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not." The reason this substitution works is because our brain makes the connection subconsciously, or involuntarily.
The fact that different forms of confinement can resemble each other, at least in how they feel to those actually living through them, is undeniable. But it's what you do with that information that matters. For example, to curb my anxiety while I prepared for my incarceration, I frequently reminded myself that people returning from time cooped up in remote research stations often report the same sort of overwhelmedness and disorientation as those recently released from jail or prison—and the same sort of loneliness, desperation, and creativity while living through them.
Of course, similarity is not identicality. "These motherfuckers complaining about being stuck in the house," a fellow prisoner scoffed during the first wave, sucking his teeth. "I'm thirsty to be in the house." I, too, would gladly have changed places with any of my friends or family in quarantine. But it's not about him, or me. It's about dismantling the prison system.
Ellen made it about herself, but I truly believe that the experience of quarantine among the general public presents a unique opportunity for broadening the abolition movement's personal appeal because it invites an empathic connection. For the first time in living memory, any given abolitionist can assume any given passerby has lived through something vaguely resembling incarceration.
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If we're not afraid to talk about these similarities, we can invite those who went through the experience of quarantine to remember that time and multiply it by a thousand, a million—and extend it by months, years, or decades.
In late May 2020, I was listening to the radio at the day room's steel table when I caught an interview on WNYC with the Fortune Society's JoAnne Page. She said she hoped "people's experience during the pandemic, when they see how hard it is to be locked into their homes, will make them a little more sensitive to what it means to lock people [up] for years."
This was my hope, too. It still is. Yet, I also fear that most people's conception of return to "normal," whatever that may mean, necessarily includes forgetting the pandemic and any lessons it—or the unique social experiment of mass release—may have offered.
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