Lockdown may be extended, but here’s why you shouldn’t compare it to prison

Empty prison cells
Afroze Fatima Zaidi

Ever since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic changed everything, a lot of people have been struggling with life in lockdown. Adjusting to a new normal, where otherwise everyday activities like travel, socialising, and shopping aren’t accessible, hasn’t been easy for some. And with the government announcing that lockdown is being extended in the UK for at least another three weeks, people might be feeling even more anxious.

On 6 April, TV host Ellen Degeneres went as far as to (jokingly) compare the experience to being in prison. In contrast, The Canary spoke to some people for whom being confined indoors isn’t new. Their responses were enlightening.

Life on the inside? Not quite.

Mohammed, a political organiser from San Franciso, has been in and out of prison over the years because of his activism. He was damning in his response to people comparing lockdown to prison:

This kind of uncertainty and being forced to stay home does invoke some of the feelings of being trapped inside jail. [But] it is also wildly infuriating to see the liberals’ darling Ellen and other rich white people who never have to even consider they may be locked up waltz around their very large and comfortable homes in which they can eat, drink and do whatever they want, still try to trivialise an experience like jail or prison

Describing the trauma of being imprisoned, Mohammed said:

[It] leaves many with long lasting or forever pains that don’t leave them when they exit jail.

Doesn’t matter how strong a person may be, jail will break you one way or another and usually that’s psychologically and emotionally. So obviously this leads someone to a lot [of] isolation – isolation they don’t choose out of wanting it, but that’s just the only way for them to get by anymore.

Jails and prisons are meant to break people”

Mohammed also highlighted another fundamental difference between prisons and the lockdown we are currently facing:

Being stuck at home or being forced to do anything against your will sucks, but people can still safely do things outside. They can do whatever they want to do in their homes. For no reason at all should people compare their very comfortable lives to jail or prisons.

Are they under threat of some sort of violence 24/7? Are they always, always, always hungry? Are they being denied medicines for both basic and serious illnesses?

Jails and prisons are meant to break people, their spirit and their dignity, so they’re docile subjects unwilling to engage in rebellion.

And Mohammed further explained how the lockdown was affecting him and other organisers:

Repression paralyses people. Sometimes the police… give clear indicators they’re watching you – that becomes a lot worse if it’s the FBI. So this type of thing, being stuck home, unable to do much in the material world with our ‘community’ working as it normally would – it leaves a lot of people in a state of paralysis.

It’s not like being under house arrest or being in a dystopian novel”

The Canary also interviewed several disabled people and/or those living with chronic illness about their experiences of lockdown. While these people find the outside world generally inaccessible, they all felt it was unacceptable to compare being in lockdown, or otherwise confined indoors, to imprisonment.

Ezra, a disability advocate who lives in Greater Manchester, has a series of disabilities which mean they “only really leave the house for appointments”.

Because of being classed as “extremely vulnerable” to coronavirus, Ezra is now unable to leave their home for a period of 12 weeks. Despite this, they said:

I think it’s really disrespectful to compare it to prison or a deprivation of liberty, especially since the vast majority of people can still go out, get their shopping, do their exercise, etc. It’s not oppressive. It’s a crisis and a national emergency, and to protect people like me from literally suffocating to death. All the government is asking is that you don’t socialise in person. That’s it. It’s not like being under house arrest or being in a dystopian novel, it’s just being a considerate neighbour to your immunocompromised and otherwise vulnerable fellow countrymen.

And Delphine, a disabled single mum living in Morocco, expressed frustration at people minimising “the profound indignities and loss of agency experienced by prisoners”. She said:

Hot takes comparing lockdown to incarceration are infuriating. Mostly because of the disrespect of inmates lived experiences. I’m mildly happy at home, not fearing for my life and bodily integrity in prison!

Katy, a former NHS worker, has a combination of chronic conditions that regularly leave her with considerable pain and fatigue. She summarised quite simply why lockdown is nothing like being in jail:

You have keys to your own front door.

Adjusting to lockdown

But there are issues affecting disabled people that others don’t have to deal with. For example, Ezra described how their care has been affected by lockdown:

The biggest change has been in my care – I usually have 50 hours of care a week, 10 hours a day every week day, with carers coming in, but now I’m quarantined they can’t come in so I’m having to rely on my wife for everything. It’s frustrating having independence taken away but I’m rolling with it and trying to see the bright side of things.

Lucille, a jewellery maker and mum of five from Keding, Suffolk, said having chronic conditions has allowed her to adjust to lockdown better than most:

I guess I’m quite content being at home because I’m grateful that my pain is now controlled just enough to allow me to function. My priority is looking after my children and building my business, allowing me to earn an income.

I think I’ve had a long time to adapt. I know how to use Facebok and Instagram to find online communities of like-minded people to talk to. I use subscriptions to things like Skillshare to learn new hobbies…

I think you learn to figure out this ‘staying at home’ thing very quickly when you know it’s your forever.

And Lisa, a mature student from Liverpool, is disabled and has also had agoraphobia since she was a child. Describing the difficulties she’s had to face even before the pandemic hit, she said:

When I became mobility disabled in 2005, this combined with my lifelong anxiety [agoraphobia] to render going out a real minefield. Everything from street architecture (those bumpy tiles at road crossings!) to knowing that however sensible my shoes, I would not be able to avoid danger – run away from an attacker, or dodge traffic – made me feel dehumanised and vulnerable. For years, as a result, I’ve felt far safer in my house than out in the world.

“Isolated and unseen”

Katy realised during a counselling course she was taking that “what is mostly my life (being indoors, not completely housebound yet, slow progressive demise) was [now] a topic of compassion and discussion”. She remarked how the pandemic has allowed for accommodations that weren’t afforded to disabled people before:

suddenly ‘we’ are all able to work from home, where before it was ‘impossible’. Jobs that ‘had’ to be full-time before can now be part-time.

On the current situation, Katy said:

For me it’s thrown more into focus how much I’ve lost over the years. They [non-disabled people] will get it all back at some point and will forget again. I, and people like me, will continue to remain largely isolated and unseen.

Lisa expressed similar views, saying:

I can of course sympathise with all people for whom life revolves around being out and about who are finding the quarantine difficult. From what I’ve seen though, the people complaining most vociferously about it also tend to come out with quite pro-capitalist or even libertarian views, which don’t and never have considered me and others in my position.

“Extreme privilege”

Meanwhile, Delphine felt complaints about being in lockdown are often “a symptom of extreme privilege”. She continued:

Upper class people are complaining about being confined in their countryside villas, while working class people crammed in apartments are not as loud.

So while a lot of people may be struggling with the idea of three more weeks in lockdown, they’d also do well to acknowledge their many privileges before they start to complain. Being bored is not the same as being truly isolated. Staying home is not the same as being in jail.

We’re living in a time when social responsibility is paramount, and that includes accepting that, right now, this new normal is what’s best for all of us.

And at the very least, when this is all over, we should translate this experience into more empathy and compassion. For those behind bars, and also those otherwise isolated because of conditions that keep them from living the life that so many of us take for granted.

Featured image via Flickr/ miss_millions

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us