After Ellen DeGeneres jokes that quarantine is like 'being in jail,' one justice-involved woman sets the record straight: 'Completely a different thing'

US comedian Ellen DeGeneres introduces Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres faced tons of backlash after comparing her COVID self-quarantine in a multimillion-dollar mansion to being in the confines of prison. One justice involved woman reached out to Yahoo Lifestyle to share her take on why it’s not.

Wednesday was DeGeneres’ big return, as the show had previously taken a 3 week hiatus due to a stay-at-home order. She returned with an episode filmed by her wife, actress Portia De Rossi, from one of their California homes. “One thing that I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people - this is like being in jail, is what it is,” said DeGeneres. In her comfy armchair she continues, “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay,” reveling in her comedic stylings.

Shortly after, many took to twitter to express their disapproval of her insensitive joke. “Hey @TheEllenShow, prisoners across this country are trapped in 24-hour quarantine in cells that are probably about the size of one of your showers & others are sleeping 3 feet away from sick inmates. And they’re dying. You aren’t experiencing anything close to prison,” wrote Caleb Grossman on Twitter.

Since the COVID pandemic, DeGeneres has not been the only person to have compared being trapped indoors to a prison sentence. And despite those who have called out such tone-deaf comments, only one group, in particular, can speak to why the comparison is insanely inaccurate: people who have experienced prison first hand. 

I met Tamanika Evans two years ago when we both became advocates for systems-involved women through the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). She spent three years in prison, after which she fought and won the hard battle to reunify with her four children. Evans is currently an administrator at Reentry Rocks where she advances her commitment to supporting women and families affected by mass incarceration. During an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle, Evans explains why comparing quarantine to imprisonment is completely inaccurate and potentially dangerous.

Related Video: Ellen DeGeneres Is Getting Backlash Over Her Quarantine Joke

Yahoo Lifestyle: What do you think about the notion that COVID-19 self-quarantines are like prison?

Tamanika Evans: I see a lot of posts on Facebook where people are comparing [quarantine] to jail. And I'm like, this is nothing like jail because I have the liberty to get up and still walk out my door if I choose to. I'm still here in a house with my children. Everything I need is here, right? So to me, this is nothing like that. I can eat what I want, when I want. I go to the bathroom when I want. I still have my dignity.

For sure. In a lot of ways, it could be dangerous to make those comparisons. 

TE: Especially when telling these teenagers that this is like jail. I do not want my daughter thinking this is jail where you're laid up all day on your tablet and watching TV. I don't want her thinking anything like that. They'll be missing how [in jail] your dignity is ripped from you. Then you turn around and we start getting higher sentences because [some now] feel like jail is too easy. "It was just like the quarantine, so yeah, that's not enough time." No. We really have to be careful in comparing them. This is more like your mother put you on punishment, you know? You just have to stay in. This is completely a different thing. 

Absolutely. Would you say there have been any hobbies or skills you picked up during your incarceration that are proving to be helpful to you during this time?

TE: You know you get bored a lot in prison when you're just sitting on that bed doing nothing, so if I do get bored, my go-to thing was reading. I guess also, it probably gave me the patience to be able to just sit here and be in a house with the kids while they’re all over the place. Even in prison everybody's all over the place, so sometimes you have to learn how to focus when a lot of things are going on. Now, if I have to work while the kids are here, I'm able to do that. I probably learned that mostly in prison.

Interestingly enough, that only further proves your point that this is really not that much like jail. What you’ve described is a skill that people all over the world are struggling to hone right now, so even though you were away for an extended period of time, you're not so many worlds apart. Does the sudden loss of control bring forth any similar emotions to what you experienced while away? 

TE: For me, it's that I just came home, I just got my life together. Now this? Did I come home, get my life together and build everything back just to lose it all? In jail I'd be thinking, "I lost it all, how can I get it back?" And now I'm worried about, "Am I going to lose it all and how will I get it back?" Another similar feeling was when I went to go get tested [for COVID-19] and I couldn't get tested. I couldn't get the health care that I needed and that reminds me of prison. If somebody wants to say this is like prison, that's the part that's like prison. You can't get the medical help you need, when you need it.

That’s pretty unsettling and those feelings can be hard to manage. How do the supports that you have access to outside of prison help you deal, given that you didn't have access to support the last time you had those thoughts? 

TE: This time around, I have my children and if they see me weak, they're going to be scared and I don't want them to be scared. I want them to be careful. Aside from that, I'm home and I'm free. So, that in itself is something. My life is my own. Yes, there are certain rules I have to abide by, but I still can do what I need to do. That just makes everything so much better. And I guess the fact that, when I was in prison, that was my fault. I got myself into the situation, but this is in no way my fault. I was doing everything that I needed to do. 

According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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