Stop comparing pandemic lockdowns to prison. As a formerly incarcerated person, what we went through over the last year is nothing compared to prison.

Stop comparing pandemic lockdowns to prison. As a formerly incarcerated person, what we went through over the last year is nothing compared to prison.
An inmate is seen reading a book in her prison cell at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California. Getty
  • COVID-19 lockdowns restricted our access and mobility.
  • This prompted comparisons to prison.
  • Prison conditions are much worse than lockdown procedures, and serve as a reminder that mass incarceration isn't sustainable.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA and a justice reform activist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

We've all experienced isolation and loss over the past year and a half, but I'd like to contextualize our shared experience of losing our freedom of movement. Collective jokes and analogies that compared the lockdown we experienced with prison abounded, but as a formerly incarcerated person, that lockdown was nowhere near as bad as prison. It's extremely important that we do not collectively minimize what imprisonment - with its attendant isolation and torturous conditions - is like.

What does isolation resemble? For many, COVID-19 meant that we hadn't seen or hugged our families, experienced a lack of access to traditional employment, and dealt with suppressed rights of mobility. That may have resembled house arrest, but that analogy is limited.

So many of us have never bothered to consider the depth of pain our legal system creates, or thought about the impact of long-term imprisonment on incarcerated people, their families, and our communities. Inside prison, you expect confined spaces, limited access to employment, lack of access to family - all the things that keep us balanced in tough times. Being in prison can take a serious toll on an individual's psychological well-being. New conditions often develop, and preexisting conditions usually worsen.

Concrete walls, little natural night, and a lack of overall stimulation can take a serious toll on mental health. People in prison have few ways to relieve stress. Their sterile environment is likely to fuel boredom, which is stressful in itself. Prison cells are small, typically around eight by six feet. Experiences of confinement in such small spaces can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health of those experiencing such conditions.

People experience a loss of purpose when they're locked up. Prisons are not obligated to pay their occupants a minimum wage for labor, so prisoners are paid somewhere between 14 cents and $1.41 per hour. Prisoners can also charge high fees for phone calls with families. Thus, it is difficult for an inmate to contribute to their family's financial or emotional needs. A perceived lack of purpose in life has a very real, serious toll on a person's psychological well-being.


When a person is incarcerated, they are no longer known for their profession, such as being a designer, a lyricist, or a driver, and they aren't known for their skills, talents, or knowledge. The loss of sense of self can be quite disorienting, confusing, and troublesome.

Now take away seeing your kids in person. Video visitation-only is on the rise in county jailsand contact visits in prisons are often difficult and inconvenient for families. Missing their loved ones and not being part of their daily lives increases feelings of isolation and loneliness for prisoners. They may also experience a lot of grief over missing out on a child's milestone activities or not being able to be there for a partner.

Incarceration has the most profound effect on the person and the consequences reach far beyond the prison walls. The emotional strain on those individuals and their families is also all too familiar. "What will become of me, of us?" is a question that never goes away.

Take a step back for a moment, why do we have recidivism? A conviction's enduring collateral damage can be wide-ranging - permanently barring individuals from basic needs like employment and housing. It's often a lack of opportunity, but more often than not, it is because of desperation, of not having anywhere to go, nowhere to sleep, and no support.

Once out, most formerly incarcerated people are sent back to the systems of deprivation that usually got them there. They have few prospects thanks to the stigma attached to their criminal records, they have spent time being treated as less than human and will have internalized some of that rhetoric, and their communities may now reject them as "less than."


They are over-supervised, over-policed, pushed out of employment, housing, and school, and often harassed back into incarceration. Even though you enjoy your freedom and are fortunate to be out, you're not actually free. Imagine carrying the weight of that judgement for the rest of your life.

Many people convicted of crimes have been victimized themselves, and thus continue to be affected by the system. So, for those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for. Now that you've experienced a little isolation, start advocating for people who are really trapped, and let's end mass incarceration.