John Oliver tackled this issue on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight. The former Daily Show correspondent began by noting just how crowded America’s prisons are. Much of this jail population growth has occurred over the last four decades, as the country now has eight times as many inmates as it did in 1970.
“We have over two million people behind bars right now,” John Oliver said. “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.”
John Oliver blamed this growth in American prison populations to factors like the decline in the mental health system to the ineffective and “racist” drug laws. Oliver noted that more than half of the inmates in United States jails are there because of drug charges, yet illicit substances are still a major problem in this country.
“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,” John Oliver deadpanned about the American prison system. “It reminds me of a joke. Black people who commit drug offenses, they go to jail [in handcuffs]. Whereas white people don’t go to jail at all.”
The Last Week Tonight host then noted that so many Americans are in prisons now that the children’s show Sesame Street has had to address the issue. Indeed, the PBS program recently introduced a Muppet named Alex whose father is in jail.
“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,” John Oliver continued.
But, as John Oliver noted, as least Sesame Street is talking about the issues with the American prison system. Most citizens ignore the issue, likely because they don’t care about those who have broken the law. And when America does talk about jail, it’s usually to joke about the sexual assaults that take place behind bars. Oliver demonstrated this with a montage of pop culture clips about “dropping the soap,” which included scenes from 3rd Rock From The Sun, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and even SpongeBob SquarePants. Yet this is no laughing matter, as about four percent of inmates reported being sexually victimized between 2011-12.
John Oliver saves some of his harshest comments for the privatization of American prisons. The host opined that these contractors do all they can to cut costs, leading to massive declines in food quality and even the occasional maggot in a prisoner’s dinner. Inmate health care has not been much better, as one former prisoner recently revealed that medical staff used sugar to treat her wound following a C-section.
The host was so disgusted by the “broken” American prison system that he sought help from some cuddly puppets, which inevitably led to an adorable (and informative) song-and-dance number. So stay tuned to the end of the video to see John Oliver and the puppets riff on crowded jails and racial profiling.
Watch John Oliver’s rant against the American prison system on Last Week Tonight.