The function of the US prison system is to rehabilitate prisoners — or at least it’s supposed to be. Nowadays, it seems like the federal prison system is more devoted to saving money than they are to taking care of inmates.
But don’t take our word for it. Watch John Oliver (and special guests) explain just how messed up our prison system has become over the years.
Click for the Transcript
JOHN OLIVER: Our main story tonight concerns something Americans simply can’t get enough of: prison. We love to be entertained by it, from Orange is the New Black, to seemingly MSNBC’s entire weekend programming, to the TNT classic Tim Robbins Stands Shirtless in the Rain: The Movie. We love prison so much, a shocking number of Americans are currently inside one as we learned last week during a house judiciary committee hearing.
TIMOTHY HEAPHY: Our nation now has the greatest number of prisoners of any country in the world. Nearly one in every one hundred adults in America is in prison or jail.
OLIVER: That’s true. We have over two million people behind bars right now. We have more prisoners at the moment than China–than China! We don’t have more of anything than China! Other than, of course, debt to China.
It didn’t always use to be this way. Our prison population has expanded eight-fold since 1970. The only other thing that’s grown at that rate since the 70’s is varieties of Cheerios. Fuck you, fruity Cheerios! You trumped up Froot Loops and you know it!
And look, our prison population has exploded for a number of reasons, from the dismantling of our mental health system, to managing minimum sentence laws (which help explain why 97% of people plead guilty to federal crimes rather than risk going to trial), to–of course–drugs.
Half the people in federal prison are there on drug charges. And it accounts for a quarter of admissions to state prisons. And of course it’s tricky to know how to feel about all this because on the one hand, the war on drugs has completely solved our nation’s drug problems, so that’s good! But on the other hand, our drug laws do seem to be a little draconian and a lot racist.
Because while white people and African-Americans use drugs about the same amount, a study has found that African-Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses at up to ten times the rate, for some utterly known reason. It reminds me of a joke: black people who commit drug offenses, they go to jail like this! Whereas white people don’t go to jail at all.
In fact, so many people are incarcerated in America right now that it’s become one of the things that Sesame Street has to explain to children.
ALEX: My dad’s in…My dad’s in jail.
WOMAN: When I was about your age, my dad was incarcerated too. Incarcerated is when someone breaks the law, a grown-up rule, and then they have to go to jail or prison.
PINK MUPPET (singing): We will be your friend! We’ll help you through!
ALL (singing): You’re not alone!
OLIVER: Just think about that: we now need adorable singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain the number seven or what the Moon is. And 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. In fact, it’s so easy not to care that we are really comfortable making jokes about one of the most horrifying things that can potentially happen to them.
HARRY SOLOMAN: Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And do not, I repeat, do not drop the soap.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: Look, doubloons! Don’t drop them.
PHOEBE BUFFAY: You know, if we were in prison, you guys would be, like, my bitches.
MICHAEL BOLTON: We’re going to federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison.
HUMPTY DUMPTY: Puss, you got any idea what they do to eggs in San Ricardo prison. It ain’t over easy.
JOHN OLIVER: Ohhh. Do you get it? Do you get it? The egg’s going to get fucked against its will! That’s why it’s funny! Wake up your children and explain that joke to them. They’ll love it. Ohhh.
We are somehow collectively able to laugh about references to the fact that 4% of prisoners reported being sexually victimized in the past year. One in twenty five. Now that might not sound like a lot, but think of it like this: if every time you bought two dozen donuts, one of them had been raped, you’d be pretty upset! And those are pastries; prisoners are people.
If you don’t know a prisoner, though, or think that you’re ever likely to become one, their safety and health is not going to be high on your list of priorities. You don’t need to know anything about the conditions that they live in. But you know who should know? Well, maybe the director of federal prisons. And yet, watch him almost comically struggle to recall a basic detail about one of the most mentally excruciating things prisoners can be subjected to: solitary confinement.
AL FRANKEN: How big is a cell? How big is the average cell in solitary?
CHARLES SAMUELS: Let’s see, the…the average size?
FRANKEN: Cell, yeah. The size of the cell. How big is it? I’m trying to get the–this is a human thing we’re talking about. We’ve got a lot of statistics. How big is the cell.
SAMUELS: The average size of a cell is… I guess I’m trying to find a… You’re looking for the space of–
FRANKEN: Yes. The dimensions in feet. In inches. The size of the cell that a person is kept in. I want to get some idea of…I don’t know–Am I asking this wrong?
OLIVER: No! No, you’re not! You are not asking it wrong! As far as I can remember, you’re just asking him what the size of the fucking cell is. But it was a long time ago, and to be fair, he did eventually get an answer.
SAMUELS: The average size should be equivalent to six by four.
OLIVER: Woah, six-by-four? A couple of things there. One, that was clearly a guess. And two, six-by-four is barely an elevator. That is the length of a six foot party sub by the length of the amount of that party sub that’s left over the following day because nobody wants party subs. People put their hands all over them, no one wants–that’s not the point. But thankfully a few minutes later, the record was corrected.
SAMUELS: It’s ten-by-seven for the cell size.
OLIVER: Oooh, ten-by-seven? Step this way, your highness! Plenty of room for a ping pong table and an imaginary opponent as your mind slowly becomes untethered.
What is clear so far is that we are doing a terrible job of taking care of people that it is very easy for all of us not to care about. But here’s the thing. Increasingly we aren’t taking care of them at all. Private subcontractors have steadily been taking over certain services, like the Aramark corporation who provide food to prisons and a promise that, with Aramark, “you can expect more–more savings.” And hey, look, when you’re being thrifty with food costs, what’s the worst that can happen?
ANCHORPERSON #1: Records show 65 instances where Aramark employees fail to provide food or ran out.
ANCHORPERSON #2: The private vendor Aramark changed recipes to include cheaper, sometimes substandard ingredients.
ANCHORPERSON #3: Aramark Correctional Services made headlines recently after maggots were found in food served at prisons here in Michigan.
OLIVER: That is not good. The only time when you are happy to hear the words “maggots were found” is when you are a maggot whose family was lost at sea. “We floated three days on a piece of bread, but we never lost hope!”
And it’s not just food that’s being privatized: it’s prisoner healthcare, too. Arizona tried that. Guess how it turned out.
ANCHORPERSON: Medical spending in prisons dropped by 30 million dollars and staffing levels plummeted. Fifty people died in Arizona Department of Corrections custody in just the first eight months of this year. Compare that to 37 deaths in the previous 2 years combined.
OLIVER: 50 deaths? At this point, you could hire the people who pretend to be doctors on Grey’s Anatomy and you would probably have a lower mortality rate, and a lot more intrigue.
Cutting costs has led to some incredibly things happening in Arizona. One prisoner had a C-section in jail, and this is how she says they treated her.
WOMAN: They decided to use sugar–kitchen sugar.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean, they used kitchen sugar?
WOMAN: Um, the packets, from like McDonalds, of sugar. They would open it, pour it inside, and put gauze over it. Tape it up. And I had to do that for like 3 weeks.
INTERVIEWER: And they poured them in your C-section?
REGAN CLARINE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Did they tell you why they were doing that?
CLARINE: One of the doctors learned it from–I don’t even know. Basically it’s a home remedy.
ANCHORPERSON: Sugar was used to treat wounds before the advent of antibiotics, back in the early 1900’s.
OLIVER: Yeah. But then we all decided it was no longer an acceptable medical practice, like curing a child’s cough with heroin. “He’s not coughing anymore!” Yeah, he’s not really doing much of anything anymore and I can’t find any of the good silver.
Look, you will never pay a political price for treating prisoners like this woman badly. You don’t even need to pretend to care. Here is how one Arizona lawmaker responded to her story.
JOHN KAVANAGH: That doesn’t sound like a true allegation. That sounds ridiculous. Prisoners have 24/7 to think of allegations and write letters. I’m not saying that some of them can’t have a basis in fact but you’ve got to take them with a grain of salt, or in the case of the hospital, maybe a grain of sugar.
OLIVER: Somewhere in hell, Satan just sharpened his pitchfork and said to his secretary, “Do me a favor, Janis, and let me know when that guy gets here, okay? I just wanna be ready.”
Many states are even contracting out entire prisons. Nearly 9% of prisons are currently run by private firms like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America who have combined revenues of over $3 billion last year. They’re publicly traded. And while their marketing materials emphasize how much they do to help prisoners rebuild their lives, their pitch to investors has been a little bit different.
ANCHORPERSON: In a recent investor presentation, CCA pitches its “Unique Investment Opportunity.” Another reason investing in the jailing of people makes good financial sense: “high recidivism.”
OLIVER: That is a great way to assure your investors. “Look, we see your concerns. What if we fully rehabilitate the prisoners and they become fully functioning members of society? Well, don’t worry! That’s not the kind of company we’re running here! Don’t worry. Once we’re done with these prisoners, they’ll look like human boomerangs: they’re broken right in the middle, and they keep coming back”
The key problem with running prisons as businesses is that prisons are then run as businesses. Pay and staffing ratios are so much lower that the GEO Group youth facility in Mississippi sometimes had just two offices overseeing as many as 256 prisoners. That facility eventually closed, but only after a federal judge wrote that physical and sexual abuse was rampant there because its operators had “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.”
Now, I know that GEO will say that presents an unbalanced picture of their company, so in the interest of balance, I will point out that they got an award from the state of Florida citing their “bold and innovative cost-saving business practices.” Although I think we all know, when the state of Florida gives you an award, that award is basically sarcastic.
In fact, a quick side note. The award was signed by Florida governor Rick Scott, who has led the drive for prison privatization in his state, but on one condition.
RICK SCOTT: What I’ve said all along is that this is an opportunity for the taxpayers of the state to save money. There is no way we’ll do this if we don’t save money. As you know, the bill says if we don’t save at leas 7%, we don’t do prison privatization.
OLIVER: “Hey, hey hey! Listen! If you think Rick Scott is going to look the other way for a company with a history of the physical abuse of minors for savings of a mere 6%, you don’t know Rick Scott, okay? Ricky needs seven! Ricky wants seven! Ricky likes seven, okay?”
Now if you happen at all to be interested in asking Rick Scott about the conduct of the GEO Group, for goodness sake, don’t do it tomorrow night. He’s busy. We actually checked and he’s going to be at a fundraiser at the home of–and this is true–the CEO of GEO Group. I believe the theme of that fundraiser is “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”
This is all so depressing. Private prisons are bad, yes, but the whole system just seems fundamentally broken. You know, I think if you don’t mind, I need a minute. I actually need some help understanding this, if you don’t mind.
TIMMY: Hey John! You seem sad.
MUPPET #1: Yeah!
OLIVER: Yeah, I am sad, Timmy. It’s just I’ve been looking at the prison conditions in America and the whole system is just so horribly broken.
TIMMY: Yeah, I know what you mean. My daddy’s in jail right now for a low level drug offense.
OLIVER: See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about, Timmy! That’s crazy.
MUPPET #3: Well, my daddy’s in jail because he killed 4 people.
OLIVER: Okay, he’s actually a dangerous individual who needs to be in jail, so that’s not really the same thing.
CROCODILE MUPPET: My daddy’s in jail and people pay money to see him!
OLIVER: Yeah, that’s actually a zoo. That’s different. He’s in the zoo, okay?
CROCODILE MUPPET: It looks the same to him…
OLIVER: Well, let’s not conflate the two. Oh, he’s gone.
TIMMY: Hey John, how badly broken is the prison system?
OLIVER: Well I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but one prison actually put sugar in a woman’s C-section.
MUPPET #2: Ah! …Wait a second. What’s a C-section?
OLIVER: Oh boy, um…
MUPPET #2: Oh, you mean like…the letter C?
OLIVER: Yes! Yes, that’s what I mean. That’s exactly what I mean.
MUPPET #3: Mr. Oliver, would it make you feel better if we sing about it?
OLIVER: Well it can’t hurt, can it! Let’s do that!
ALL (singing): It’s a fact that needs to be spoken: America’s prisons are broken! It’s a hard truth about incarceration! Prisons are needed for a civilization!
MUPPET #2 (singing): But mandatory minimum is for heroin and crack!
TIMMY (singing): Stack the system against Hispanics and Blacks!
OLIVER (singing): Our prison population is bigger than Slovenia!
MUPPET #3 (singing): ‘Cause we put people in jail instead of treating schizophrenia!
OLIVER: It’s true.
MUPPET #2: No, I don’t–they put my dad in jail because they say he’s a monster!
OLIVER: Oh! What did he do?
MUPPET #2: Nothing. They just said he looks like a monster.
OLIVER: Well that’s racial profiling, and that’s wrong too! Okay?
ALL (singing): It’s a fact that needs to be spoken: America’s prisons are broken!
OLIVER (singing): Prison conditions are a national disgrace!
TIMMY: With violence!
MUPPET #3: And maggots!
MUPPET #2: And possibly race!
CROCODILE MUPPET: And we shouldn’t lock up reptiles just to look at their face!
OLIVER: Those are zoos. Those are zoos. Your dad is an alligator in a zoo.
CROCODILE MUPPET: I’m a crocodile. I’m a crocodile!
ALL: Ah, geez. Here we go.
CROCODILE MUPPET: We all look alike, right?
OLIVER: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying! That’s not what I’m saying! No no, you can’t put that on me! That is clearly not what I was saying.
CROCODILE MUPPET: That’s so ignorant.
OLIVER: Aw, come on.
MUPPET #2: As we were saying!
ALL (singing): It’s a fact that needs to be spoken: America’s prisons are broken!
MUPPET #3: America’s broken prison system is brought to you by decades of neglect…
TIMMY: …a lack of political courage…
MUPPET #2: …and a generous donation by the GEO Group!
OLIVER: As well as viewers like you!