On Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver returned to one of his favorite topics: The criminal justice system in the United States. He has covered prosecutors, the use of lethal injections, mandatory minimum sentences, and the reentry of prisoners to mainstream society and this time he focused on prison labor.
As Oliver tells it, prisoners in several states, prisoners are not paid for their prison work as janitors, in the laundry, or with food at all, and if they don’t work they are at risk of disciplinary action and even being put in solitary confinement, which one commentator pointed out sounds a lot like slavery. Oliver noted that something must have “‘Why is that not slavery?‘ is one of those questions that even if you have to ask it, something has already gone very wrong,” Oliver noted. “Like, how many swastika tattoos? Or which of mommy’s nightstand drawers did you open? Things are already bad, we just need to find out how bad.”
According to Oliver, prison labor is “not exactly not slavery”, because the 13th amendment of the Constitution outlaws slavery, except as a punishment for a crime. “The amendment abolishing slavery is not really not the one you want to suddenly include the word ‘except,‘” Oliver pointed out.
While Oliver notes he feels prisoners are not a naturally sympathetic group of people, he still argues that combining the low wage they earn and the high cost that their families can incur outside, the “current system can cost all of us.”
According to Oliver, the more prisoners work, not only in the penitentiaries, but also outside of prisons, they are seen less as “humans paying their debt to a society and more as a pool of virtually free labor.” The idea of using prisoners as free labor sounds a lot “like the villain in The Shawshank Redemption”, Oliver pointed out. As for why prisoners need money, it’s because prisons like to charge prisoners for things like personal hygiene products like soap, shampoo, or feminine hygiene products.
Oliver’s real ire, though, was reserved for the for-profit companies that make money off prisoners. That includes companies like JPay, which Oliver claims can tack on 45% in fees when family tries to send an inmate money, or Securus Technologies that has charged $3 for the first minute of a phone call to a prisoner.
That expense is compounded by the fact that some prisons were contractually obligated to phase out in-person visits with prisoners so family had no choice but to pay exorbitant fees for video calls, which is how one in three families of prisoners have gone into debt by simply paying to speak to their family member. “Machine that makes money by stopping people from seeing their families sounds like an item off of Satan’s Amazon wishlist, right before super bedbugs, cauliflower rice, or just the actual existence of Amazon,” Oliver said.
Watch John Oliver on prison labor on Last Week Tonight below.