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John Oliver takes on the U.S. prison system

by Peter Wagner, August 4, 2014

In case you missed it, two weeks ago comedian John Oliver did an amazing 17 minute piece on the U.S. prison system on his Last Week Tonight program:

Now as Cari Gervin notes on the Metro Pulse blog one thing that Oliver gets wrong is the difference between prisons and jails:

It’s a good piece, and it should make you infuriated—the state of mass incarceration in this country is atrocious. Privatizing—and profiting from—locking up people is really screwed up. But there’s one point Oliver misses. Right after showing a clip from Sesame Street, Oliver says, “At least Sesame Street is actually talking about prison. The rest of us are much happier completely ignoring it, perhaps because it’s so easy not to care about prisoners. They are by definition convicted criminals.”

Actually, 428,000 of the people locked up each day are presumed innocent. They have either just been arrested and are trying to make bail, or they are too poor to make bail and are being held until trial. Now this population is a portion — 18% — of the 2.4 million people who are locked up, but the speed at which people churn through jails adds up to big numbers: jails lock up 12 million people over the course of a year. That’s a lot of people, and as Cari Gervin notes: “conditions in local jails are often much worse—and more restrictive—than state or federal prisons”. She attributes the conditions to the fact that “municipal budgets are even more strapped than state budgets” although I’d make the point that because jails are all operated independently, there is less oversight and less attention paid to identifying and following best practices.

Now one of the worst practices is the idea of making families pay to visit their loved ones, and that’s something that to my knowledge exists only in jails, as I can’t imagine a state prison system banning in-person visitation and requiring people to use expensive paid video visitation instead. But sadly, a number of jails do this, and that’s the subject of Cari Gervin’s excellent cover story in Metro Pulse about the Knox County, Tennessee jail.

video thumbnailToward the end of the Last Week Tonight video, Oliver sits on a stoop talking to puppets about their parents in jail. “That’s actually a zoo, that’s different,” Oliver says to an crocodile complaining that his “daddy’s in jail and people pay money to see him.”

The comedic effect gets lost when you consider just how much money people have to pay to see their incarcerated human relatives.

2 Responses

  1. Róisín says, 1 week after publication:

    Excellent piece. Thank you Mr. Oliver.

  2. Sesame Street tells 2.7 million children they’re not alone | Prison Policy Initiative says, 1 month, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] couple of months ago, John Oliver did a hilarious episode on prisons including a scene in which Oliver sings about prisons with Sesame Street muppets. A few […]

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