John Oliver on prisons during Covid-19: 'That's not justice, that's neglect'

The Last Week Tonight host examines coronavirus outbreaks in US jails and prisons, and calls on them to depopulate immediately

John Oliver: “At this point, it’s worth asking: what the fuck are we doing here? Particularly during this pandemic but also in general. Because there’s obviously a much larger discussion to be had about how millions of people ended up incarcerated in the first place, and whether or not prisons even work — which, I would argue, they absolutely do, if you’re only goal is to have a lot of people in prison. The fact is, we should be depopulating prisons and jails as quickly as we can right now.”
John Oliver: ‘The fact is, we should be depopulating prisons and jails as quickly as we can right now.’ Photograph: YouTube

John Oliver returned to the white void of at-凯发官网网址多少home Last Week Tonight on Sunday for his eighth installment on coronavirus – this time, on the disease’s spread in America’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Some of America’s worst coronavirus outbreaks have been in its criminal detention facilities, a system which holds 2.2 million people, many of whom are older and/or immunocompromised from chronic health issues such as diabetes or hypertension.

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“Whether you’re in a jail” – the place for people detained while awaiting trial or held for minor crimes – “or a prison” for those convicted and serving sentences of over a year, “you are probably in a facility that is in no way built to cope with a crisis like this”, Oliver said. For one, “it’s hard to practice social distancing when you live in what’s basically a closet with two beds and a toilet”.

There are also shortages of basic cleaning supplies such as soap, limited to no testing, no personal protective equipment (PPE) and the threat of solitary confinement as quarantine, which does not incentivize honesty.

“And when you take all of this together – the close quarters, the lack of basic protections and the uncertainty about the spread of the potentially deadly virus – it’s honestly no surprise that tensions can hit a breaking point,” Oliver explained, referencing footage from an inmate uprising at Lansing correctional facility in Michigan in April. “If anyone is thinking that that’s an extreme response,” Oliver said of the inmates, in fear of their lives, revolting, “simply ask this: what else are they supposed to do? What other bargaining chip do prisoners have at their disposal right now?

“This has actually been a bit of a recurring theme lately,” Oliver continued, “but I’ll say it again: if it takes the destruction of property for a system to pay attention to human lives then we are in a dark fucking place.”

Oliver acknowledged that “it can be easy to ignore” the problem of coronavirus in prisons, especially for Americans with no personal tie to the incarceration system, but argued that prisoners are by no means a “separate population”, to quote a California spokesperson downplaying the outbreak at the Lompoc federal correctional complex, which had 1,000 inmates test positive in 9,000 coronavirus cases. “We might as well be handing them coronavirus gift bags as they leave work every day and head back out into the community,” Oliver said.

The virus can also spread from prison to prison as inmates are transferred, or when inmates are treated at local hospitals. And then there are jails, which have a constant churn of people – in any given week, more than 200,000 people – moving in and out.

So, Oliver asked, what can we do? “Realistically, we need to be getting as many people out of prisons and jails as possible, which is, frankly, something we should be doing anyway,” he answered.

And the first people to be released immediately, Oliver continued, are people awaiting trial in jail who could not afford cash bail, a practice already under fire in the US. “I am not saying that every person who’s let out of jail due to the coronavirus will behave perfectly. No one can say that,” Oliver said, warning that “you will see people on TV excitedly citing isolated cases of people who were released and then did bad things. You’ll see that on shows like ‘Crime Porn for Old Whites with Laura Ingraham’ or ‘They’re Coming For You! With a Human Squash Court’” aka Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“But on balance, the risk of carefully letting people out are vastly outweighed by the risks of leaving everyone inside.”

As for prisons, Oliver advocated for releasing those who have served the majority of their sentences, especially the elderly and the immunocompromised.

To illustrate the urgency of the current coronavirus situation in prison, Oliver played a Facebook Live video posted by Aaron Campbell, an inmate at a low-security federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, in which he begged for help: “They literally leaving us in here to die,” he says. Campbell has reportedly been in solitary since the video went viral as punishment for using a contraband cellphone, which led Oliver to ask: “What the fuck are we doing here? Particularly during this pandemic, but also in general. Because there’s obviously a much larger discussion to be had about how millions of people ended up incarcerated in the first place, and whether or not prisons even work – which, I would argue, they absolutely do, if your only goal is to have a lot of people in prison.

“The fact is, we should be depopulating prisons and jails as quickly as we can right now,” Oliver continued, and pushed back on the traditional axiom that “you should never do the crime if you can’t do the time”. Under America’s current criminal justice system, “you’re never just being sentenced to time”, Oliver said. “You’re being sentenced to a lifetime of social stigma, futile job interviews and roadblocks to necessities like housing. All of that is immoral enough; there is frankly no reason whatsoever we should also now be sentencing people to die from a virus. Because that’s not justice – that’s neglect.”

Incarcerated people are not, to quote the California spokesperson, a “separate population”, Oliver concluded. They are part of society, “and if this horrific year has taught us one thing, it’s that we’re all on this death cruise ship together”.