Watch John Oliver Explain the Insanity of Our Prison System With Puppets


The United States imprisons too many people for too long for too many things. As John Oliver summed it up last night, “We are doing a terrible job taking care of people that it is very easy for all of us not to care about.”

Oliver outlines a few of the prison system’s flagrant injustices:

  • African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people, despite similar levels of drug use.
  • Solitary confinement, which Mother Jones has covered extensively, is “one of the most mentally excruciating things prisoners can be subjected to.” Yet when a senator asked the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons about the size of the average isolation cell during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this past February, the prison official had no idea, stalling awkwardly before making a wildly incorrect guess.
  • One in 25 prison inmates reported being sexually victimized in the past year, yet prison rape is culturally-acceptable joke material that crops up in pop culture regularly: from SpongeBob to Friends to Puss in Boots.
  • In an effort to cut costs, many states outsource food, health care, and even prison operations to private contractors. These cost-saving techniques have lead to maggot-infested food in Michigan prisons and 50 inmates dying in one 8-month stretch in Arizona.
  • Prisoner rehabilitation isn’t exactly the system’s focal point: Publicly-traded private prison giant Corporate Corrections of America (CCA) actually touted “high recidivism” as a reason private prisons are a “unique investment opportunity.”

He closes the segment by recapping the horrors of the US prison system with mock Sesame Street puppets: The PBS show has recently made efforts to reach out to the 1 in 28 US children growing up with a parent behind bars.

The segment’s bottom line: Prisoners are not treated humanely in the United States. They’re viewed as a nuisance, a problem to be tucked away in a cell and never thought of again. But when nearly 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars, our broken system of mass incarceration is a human rights abuse that should not be ignored.

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It’s really that simple. But if you’d like to read a bit more, our membership lead, Brian Hiatt, has a post for you highlighting some of our newsroom's impressive, impactful work of late—including two big investigations in just one day and covering voting rights the way it needs to be done—that we hope you’ll agree is worth supporting.

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