Jon Oliver Tackles the Broken, Corrupt Prison System, But Will Anyone Care?
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Jon Oliver Tackles the Broken, Corrupt Prison System, But Will Anyone Care?

By Dustin Rowles | Videos | July 21, 2014 | Comments ()

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In last night’s extended issue segment, Jon Oliver tackled the prison problem from every single angle. Basically, he highlighted the fact that there are too many people in prison (1 in 100 in the United States, more than half a million more than in all of China), that a disproportionate number of them are black men, and that we have way too many non-violent drug offenders serving too much time. But beyond that, he also went into the heinous conditions in prisons, a problem that can partially be attributed to the government’s decision to outsource prison services to private contractors to save money (which means substandard food, and even a reported case of maggots in the food).

It’s a hard sell, even for Jon Oliver, because he’s basically asking us to show compassion for people who break the law and essentially lobby for better treatment of criminals. It’s a noble argument, and a necessary one, but even as corrupt and broken as the prison system is, Oliver is not likely to make a lot of headway here. The Sesame Street puppets are a nice touch, though.

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  • denesteak

    Who hates Cheerios??? I don't get it.

    In all seriousness, I watched this thing the whole way through, and I think if people don't care a little by the end of it, then they probably work for GEO or CCA.

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  • Sara_Tonin00

    I recently got into a conversation with a Dutch tourist at a coffee shop near a hostel. He was a good looking young man, and just happened to work in security. We got into a discussion of various things, and he touched upon that pervasive Dutch attitude of the immigrants being bad, criminal elements - even if he couched it gently. The "isn that a shame" rather than full on condemnation. And we discussed NY, and Detroit, and stop & frisk. And I asked him, in all honesty, if he really though that the Muslims in the Netherlands were the only ones trafficking in drugs, or if they were the only ones being caught, because they were the ones being searched more thoroughly, more often? Because, here as there, it is NO way my life experience that clean cut, white, "decent" people are devoid of drugs. They are just aren't being caught.

    It's so distressing - so upsetting - that this is a problem that refuses to go away, because the authorities just don't create a level playing field. Being anything less than white collar somehow makes you 10 times less worthy of compassion on the streets or in a courtroom.

  • lowercase_ryan

    society cycles back and forth between wanting to punish and rehabilitate. That's the theory anyways. Sure seems like punishment has been the goal for most of my lifetime.

  • Catfish

    "Am I asking this wrong?"

  • Genevieve Burgess

    For me, a lot of this comes down to what we want the goal of prison to be. Most people who seem to think we shouldn't care about these issues are of the "eye for an eye" mindset who believe that prison should be a miserable, unrelenting slog as punishment for your crime. Those who think more of prison as a chance at rehabilitation are often shouted down for being "soft" on criminals, except that most of the criminals will be released at some point. It makes no sense to release people into the world who have lost years worth of career development, education, and normal socializing while giving them absolutely no skills or assistance to work their way back to a different kind of life. Leaving them for years in conditions that are going to make them bitter, suspicious, and violent by necessity is just making a bad problem worse.

    I think most non-violent drug possession and low-level dealing crimes should be dealt with through probation and regular monitoring, with job training or other educational resources available. Yeah, it seems soft, but it's also probably a hell of a lot cheaper to send a 17 year old dealer to community college for a few years than it is to lock him up for 10 years. Both in the immediate and long-term sense.

  • I've long advocated for a two-tiered prison system: a lower tier for non-violent, petty, or drug-related crimes that's designed to reform and rehabilitate, and another for major felonies, most violent crimes (murder), sex abuse, child abuse, and severe white-collar crime that's basically designed as punishment.

  • Sean

    But that makes too much sense. And not nearly enough money to hand out to the friends and relatives of politicians.

  • Well, the private prison industry would still make money hand over fist, as would the small towns doing everything they can to lure prisons to their area (think about how insane that sounds on its face). Decriminalizing most drugs would make the most sense but that would absolutely hurt the prison industry and by extension, the politicians that benefit from their largesse.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    funny story (perhaps apocryphal)- Auburn, NY is smack dab in the center of the state. It was offered the opportunity to be the state capital or to have a prison, and it opted for the prison.

  • SVR

    I have been teaching prisoners this summer. My students (and I understand that I am getting the brightest, most committed students for this program), are all great. They're intelligent, they ask questions, they come up with some brilliant observations. They're no less respectful than my "normal" students.

    And the conditions are pretty miserable -- even in a generally "good" prison and program like the one I'm involved in. Teaching is a challenge, not because of their behavior, but because they have access to virtually nothing. The library is small and has little actual content. They of course have no access to the internet, so no academic journals/articles. They only have inconsistent access to computers, so most of their work is handwritten. I'm limited as to what I can bring into the prison to discuss or use as teaching aids. And I usually have an hour less than my scheduled time with them.

    It's also the only class I've ever taught with more than 4 black people in it. Which is just about as depressing as it sounds.

    ETA: I also want to add that these people are, in fact people. They're not monsters, they're not animals, and they're not worthless. Some did very bad things and they should be in prison. Others not so much. But even though I accept prison as a form of punishment for some crimes, it does not mean that I accept a system where they are paid nothing for their work and then charged a copay if they need to get medical treatment. It's disgusting, inhumane, and will in no way serve society or the men and women when they're released.

  • Kala

    I believe Oliver addressed something very noteworthy when he states, "If you don't know a prisoner though, or think that you're ever likely to become one, than their safety and health is not going to be high on your list of priorities."

    I've been in the same room as people who are all for horrible living conditions and cutting down prisoners's meals to two meals a day. And I've told them right back that the minute you know someone, when you have a person that you genuinely care about become incarcerated, all of that changes. There's an incredibly stupid premise that offers the idea that living rent-free and being provided with meals --along with a few minutes of television and a bit of supervised exercise -- means that prisoners are somehow spoiled or living well. Worry not, dear people, for prison sucks unbelievable ass no matter how much Guiding Light those guys get to see.

    It's not to say that there should be no punishment for breaking the law. But at the end of the day, we as a nation have become incredibly skilled at forgetting that those are honest-to-goodness people inside of those walls. To allow their conditions to fester due to budgets and apathy is a moral failing that far too many people are more than happy to abide.

  • John W

    Will anyone care? Not as long as there country club prisons for white collar criminals and not as long as your using muppets to make your point.

  • "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." - Dostoevsky.

    I wonder what he would say about our society.

  • "Do you get it? The egg is going to get fucked against its will." I was laughing so hard at that last night I woke up my wife.

    The race/socioeconomic disparity is particularly galling. Matt Taibbi does a great job outlining the different rule sets that govern rich/middle-class people and those on the low end of the wage scale (many of whom happen to be minorities) in his book The Divide. The latter group is arrested exponentially more. Courts are far less willing to cut them breaks. Ridiculous laws are enforced to the letter. It all adds up to keep the lower classes in perpetual legal trouble.

    Like you said, though, it's really hard to get worked up about this issue because we think it doesn't affect us on a daily basis. At least not on the same level as income inequality, the economy, climate change, broken government, immigration, and FX extending their dramas past the traditional hour endpoint with little to no notice.

  • e jerry powell

    And there's part of the problem: more people watch television than read Taibbi...

  • Sara_Tonin00

    The way that rape is taken for granted as a part of the prison system, and even ASSUMED as part of the punitive aspect of it, is so ingrained and heartbreaking. I almost laughed at that joke even as my stomach turned.

  • e jerry powell

    Even yuckier is that gay porn actually glorifies prison rape, particularly by black thugs.

  • Sean

    That was exactly how you were supposed to feel at that. And, more importantly, if you didn't feel that way you are probably a very bad person.

  • Andrew

    The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander goes into a lot of this and the reasons for it as well. A really great book that exposes a lot of the corruption and terrible conditions in our criminal justice system.

  • e jerry powell

    And again: more people watch television than read Michelle Alexander...

  • Stephen Nein

    I cannot recommend this book enough. Taken in hand with Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, you get a phenomenally different perspective of what it means to be under suspicion or branded a felon.

  • Andrew

    Balko's great too. I'd also recommend reading the "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" blog if you're interested in this sort of thing.

  • JustOP

    And then there's the time where these rich-white-people are let off deadly drunk driving charges because he suffers from 'Affluenza'. He is literally 'too rich' to be prosecuted.

  • There's nothing you can't get away with in America if you're rich and white. Colts owner Jim Irsay was pulled over wasted with 39K in cash and a pillow case full of illegal prescription drugs and got charged with a misdemeanor for which he'll serve no jail time. If his name was LaDarius Irsay he'd be in prison for 20 years and his entire family would be deported overnight.

  • JustOP

    I could never really get into the Daily Show - I understood it was satire, I could even understand how people find it funny, but it was far too loud and obvious for me to derive any humour from it despite respecting some of the positions it stood for.

    But I totally enjoy John Oliver because he's so direct. Might just be a cultural difference, but I can actually sit and watch an entire episode of this and stay engaged.

  • mzbitca

    I feel like the Daily Show is more about the way people react to the news or manipulate the news. I points out the flaws in our media and political sphere but it does not seem focused on educating about the "issues" whereas that's where Oliver is most focused. Media presentation is just a part of it with him where I feel like it's most of it with Stewart

  • NateMan

    Oliver seems to provide far more information than the Daily Show. And why not? They devote more time to a single issue in their show. So though I'm a big fan of Stewart, Colbert, and their respective programs, I feel like I learn a lot more from Oliver.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think of it as nightly news vs weekly news magazine. I like them both, though I still want Oliver to polish his delivery a little more. I actually find him noisier than the Daily Show, were Stewart is goofy, but generally more sedate, playing the straight man to his correspondents. (unless he's in full on New Yawk/NJ bada-bing mode, which, as a Jersey native and NYC resident, I unabashedly love)

  • Sean

    I don't think it is a cultural thing. I think it is more the freedom giving to someone who doesn't have to have satisfy the advertisers on his show. A little difficult to spend 20 minutes attacking GM, and their murdering their customers then cut to a commerical for Buick.

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