Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: America's Prisons
July 21, 2014 7:42 AM - Season 1, Episode 11 - Subscribe

This week: Conflict in Gaza. Ukraine rebels shoot down airliner. The Commonwealth Games. John Oliver says the overall theme of the week was how depressing it was, so let's have a long piece on prisons in America... but with a puppet song at the end! John Oliver suffers so that we might laugh.
posted by JHarris (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I couldn't tell -- were those real Muppets or just very realistic knockoffs? I assume knockoffs, but they did a really good job.
posted by Night_owl at 8:16 AM on July 21, 2014

The extended piece on prisons was magnificent.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:45 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is a strong juxtaposition when he's making goofy jokes about such a horrific issue.
posted by goethean at 9:37 AM on July 21, 2014

I try to link the YouTube clips from the official channel in the main post, but forgot to put the links in this week. Here they are:
Singapore Gambling Commercial
The whole Prisons bit, quite lengthy and with Muppet-alikes at the end.
They were indeed Muppet knockoffs at the end, or at least Jim Henson's company wasn't mentioned in the credits.
posted by JHarris at 10:38 AM on July 21, 2014

News Recap
First the news of the week, which has been "fucking depressing, if you ask me."

Escalating conflict in Gaza. As of broadcast 18 Israeli soldiers have died and over 300 Palistinians, most of whom being civilians.
How depressing is it? A clip from Anderson Cooper from last week is shown:
"Hamas, which controls Gaza, isn't backing down, its rockets are reaching deeper into Israel." (July 10, 2014)
Then another clip of Anderson Cooper saying pretty much the same thing is shown from November 20, 2012. And January 3, 2009. And August 1, 2006. Oliver: "Why is CNN even wasting money having him report on this, when they could just rerun his coverage from five years ago and no one would even notice?" Cooper doesn't even look different in those clips. Oliver: "This is me in 2006!" A brief clip from The Daily Show is shown showing a much younger-seeming John Oliver. "John Oliver: European Courrespondouent." Oh, the days. "I actually think that, in his attic, Anderson Cooper has a painting of himself as an old man, in a peaceful Middle East!"

Ukraine rebels shoot down an airliner, with Russian weapons. Ah, more depressing news. "You would think it would cause Vladimir Putin to do some soul searching, or at least some soul manufacturing. But instead, he went a different way." CNN: "Vladimir Putin says Ukraine is to blame, saying, quote, 'This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land.'" Yes, because Vladimir Putin game them those weapons! Oliver: "What great outcome were you anticipating from that exactly? Because no story in history has ever ended: '...and then, an assortment of angry rebels were given military-grade weapons, they used them responsibly, and we all lived happily ever after!'"

"The Leftovers was less depressing than this!" But why are they still even flying? CNN: "Why would they continue flying over a known war zone where there has been three shoot-downs in the past week?" Answer: less fuel cost! Oliver: "Hold on. If it's true that some airlines choose to fly over a war zone to save money, then I'd like to take a moment to address those airlines, and say: DON'T DO THAT!"

"Finally, we turn to some lighter news: crippling gambling addiction in Singapore." (3m) A Singapore-made anti-gambling commercial is shown featuring a kid who hopes Germany will win because his dad bet their life savings on them. Except, as Oliver points out, Germany did win. "That kid is now the richest sad person since Kristan Stewart!"

Singapore, it turns out, has a long (but fake) history of blowing it with anti-gambling advertisements. A quick "retrospective" of these is shown, with a kid lamenting: "I hope the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. Our dad bet all our savings on them." Later commercials show the kid in progressively better conditions, but still sad, and his friends get annoyed that his increasingly specific bets keep winning. "Guys, my dad's out of control!" "Shut up Andy."

How Is This Still A Thing?
This week: The Commonwealth Games (Wikipedia), popular in many parts of the world, unknown in the U.S. Contests on Jeopardy! are shown passing on a question involving them. Our Narrator says: "Here's a question. What the fuck are the Commonwealth Games, other than the winner of the creepest mascot on earth competition? Well, imagine the Olympics without the United States, China and Russia. Then, imagine a track meet dominated by sprinters from Wales. You have the Commonwealth Games, a competition only open to members of the British Commonwealth." Worth it for "'Netball,' which is basically what Basketball would be if you didn't have the rights to play Basketball." And "[...] Opening and Closing Ceremonies that speak to our sense of wonder. Specifically, the wonder of what an off-Broadway version of the Olympic Ceremonies would look like."

Main Story: Prison (18m)
"We love prison so much a shocking number of Americans are currently inside one." The U.S. has more prisoners than China, despite having less than a quarter of the people. Since 1970, prison populations have grown by 800%! Why? "[...]the dismantling of our mental health system, to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which explain why 96.9% of people plead 'Guilty' to federal crimes rather than risk going to trial, to, of course: drugs. Because half the people in federal prison are there on drug charges." (Source, PDF) (Aside: The Wikipedia article "United States Incarceration Rate" cites the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for the fact that approximately one in ten Americans have been arrested on drug-related charges.)

While whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate, black people are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses, for "some utterly known reason." "It reminds me of a joke! Black people who commit drug offenses, they go to jail like this, whereas white people don't go to jail at all."

It's become such a problem that it's become one of the things Sesame Street has to explain to children, as illustrated by a clip, in which Abby Cadabby, the lovable and popular fairy-in-training Muppet, consoles another kid Muppet because his dad was sent to the slammer. "Just think about that! We now need adorable singing puppets to explain prison to children, the same way they explain the number seven, or what the moon is!"

"And at least Sesame Street is talking about prison, because the rest of us are much happier completely ignoring it. Perhaps because it's so easy not to care about prisoners. They are, by definition, convicted criminals. In fact," (aah) "it's so easy not to care" (I see it coming!) "that we are really comfortable about making jokes about one of the most horrifying things that could potentially happen to them." (Yes, finally, someone in the media realizes how crazy making jokes about prison rape is!) Roll the clips!

Clips joking about prison rape, both "dropping the soap" and other forms, are shown from....
* Third Rock From The Sun (1997), playing Monopoly. "Go directly to Jail, do not pass 'Go,' do not collect $200, and do not, I repeat do not, drop the soap."
* The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)
* Half Baked (1998)
* I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry (2007)
* Spongebob Squarepants (2001) (Spongebob, playing pirate, shows two bars of soap to Gary.) "Look! Doubloons! Don't drop 'em!"
* Friends (1996) "You know what, if we were prison, you guys would be, like, my bitches!"
* Office Space (1999) "We're going to Federal 'Pound 'Em In The Ass' Prison!"
* Puss In Boots (2011) Humpty Dumpty: "Puss! You have any idea what they do to eggs in San Ricardo Prison? It ain't over easy!" Cat: "Doooooh!"

About that last one, Oliver adds: "Doooooh! Did you get it? You get it?? The egg's gonna get fucked against his will! That's why it's funny. Grab your children and explain that joke to them, they'll love it! Doooooh!"

"We are somehow collectively able to laugh at references to the fact that four percent of prisoners have reported being sexually victimized in the past year, one in twenty-five! That might not sound like a lot, but think about it like this: if every time you bought two dozen doughnuts, one of them had been raped, you'd be pretty upset. And those are pastries, prisoners are people!"

"If you don't know a prisoner though, or think that you're ever likely to become one, their safety and health is not going to be high on your list of priorities. You don't need to know anything about the conditions that they live in. But you know who should know? Maybe the Director Of Federal Prisons. And yet, watch him almost comically struggle to recall a basic detail about how one of the most mentally excruciating things prisoners can be subjected to, solitary confinement."

(from CSPAN2)
Sen. Al Franken (D-MA): "How big is a cell? How big is the average cell in solitary?"
Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr: "You say the, the average size?"
Franken: "Cell, yeah. The size of the cell. How big is it. What is it? I'm trying to get this, this is a human thing we're talking about. We've got a lot of statistics, how big is the cell?"
Samuels: (flails about) "The average size of a cell is... you're looking for the space of what..."
Franken: (as Samuels flails) "Yes. The dimensions, in feet. In inches. The size of the cell. That a person is kept in. I want to get some idea of... (aside) am I asking this wrong?"

Oliver: "To be fair, he did eventually get an answer."

Samuels: "The average size should be equivalent to... six by... four...."

Oliver: "Six by four?! Couple of things there, one, that was clearly a guess, and two, six by four is barely an elevator!" Eventually the record is corrected: ten by seven. Oliver: "Oh! Step this way, your highness! Enough room for a ping-pong table and an imaginary opponent as your mind slowly becomes untethered!"

"What is clear, so far, is that we are doing a terrible job of taking care of people it is very easy for all of us not to care about. But here's the thing. Increasingly, 'we' are not taking care of them at all. Private subcontractors have steadily been taking over certain services. Like the Aramark Corporation, who provide food to prisons, and a promise, that, with Aramark, 'you can expect more -- more savings.' And hey look, if you're being thrifty with food costs, what's the worst that can happen?"

News report clips:
WOOD-TV (Grand Rapids): "Records show 65 instances where Aramark employees failed to provide food or ran out[...]."
"Private vendor Aramark [...] changed recipes to cheaper, sometimes substandard, ingredients."
"Aramark Correctional Services made headlines recently after maggots were found in food served at prisons here in Michigan."

Oliver: "And it's not just food that's been privatized, it's prison health care too. Arizona tried that -- guess how it turned out?"

News report clips:
"Medical spending in prisons dropped by 30 million dollars. Staffing levels plummeted. 50 people died in Arizona Department of Corrections custody in just the first eight months of (2013). Compare that to 37 deaths in the previous two years combined."

Oliver: "Fifty deaths! At this point, you could hire the people who pretend to be doctors on Gray's Anatomy and you would have a lower mortality rate... and a lot more intrigue. Cutting costs has led to some incredible things happening in Arizona. One prisoner had a C-Section in jail, and this is how she says they treated her:"

(AlJazeera interview)
Inmate Regan Clarine: "They decided to use sugar, kitchen sugar."
Interviewer: "What do you mean, kitchen sugar?"
Clarine: "The packets like at McDonalds... the sugar, they would open it, pour it inside, and put gauze over it, tape it up, and I'd have to do that for a few weeks."
Interviewer: "They... poured them in your C-Section. Did they tell you why they were doing that?"
Clarine: "One of the doctors learned it from, I don't even know. I don't know, basically it's a home remedy."
Interviewer (voice-over): "Sugar was used to treat wounds before the advent of antibiotics in the early 1900s."

Oliver: "Yeah. But then we all decided it was no longer an acceptable medical practice. Like curing a child's cough with heroin. 'Look, he's not coughing anymore!' 'Yeah, but he's not really doing much of anything anymore, and I can't find any of the good silver!'"

An Arizona lawmaker (State Representative John Kavanagh) responded to Clarine's story (AlJazeera clip): "That doesn't sound like a true allegation. That sounds ridiculous. Prisoners have 24/7 to think of allegations and write letters. I'm not saying that some of them can't have a basis in fact, but you gotta take them with a grain of salt, or, in the case of the hospital, maybe a grain of sugar."

Oliver: "Somewhere in Hell, Satan just sharpened his pitchfork and said to his secretary, 'Do me a favor Janice and let me know when that guy gets here, okay?'"

Oliver continues, "Many states are even contracting out entire prisons. 9% of prisons are currently run by private firms, like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), who had combined revenues of over three billion dollars last year. They're publicly traded, and while their marketing materials emphasize how much they do to help their prisoners rebuild their lives, their pitch to investors has been a little bit different:"

(CBN [of all people] News):
"In a recent investor presentation, CCA pitches their 'unique investment opportunity,' [...] Another reason investing in the jailing of people makes good financial sense? High recidivism."

Oliver: "That is a great way to reassure your investors. 'I see your concerns, "What if we fully rehabilitate prisoners, and they become fully-functional members of society?" Well don't worry, that's not the kind of company we're running here! Don't worry, once we're done with these prisoners they're like human boomerangs, broken right in the middle and they keep coming back!'"

"The key problem with running prisons as businesses is that prisons are then run as businesses. Paying and staffing ratios are so much lower that a GEO Group youth facility in Mississippi sometimes had just two officers supervising between 128 and 256 prisoners! That facility eventually closed, but only after a federal judge wrote that physical and sexual abuse was rampant there because its operators had 'allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate[...].'"

"Now, I know that GEO will say that presents an unbalanced picture of their company, so in the interest of balance, we'll point out that they got an award (Governor's Savings Award) for the State of Flordia, citing their 'bold and innovative cost-saving business practices.' Although I think we all know, when the state of Flordia gives you an award, that award is basically sarcastic."

"A quick side-note. That award was signed by Flordia Governor Rick Scott, who led the drive for prison privatization in his state, but on one condition:"

Gov. Scott: "What I've said all along is that this is an opportunity for the taxpayers of the state to save money[...]. There's no way we'll do this if we don't save money. As you know, the bill says if we don't save at least seven percent, we don't do prison privatization."

Oliver: "Hey hey hey! Listen, if you think Rick Scott is going to look the other way for a company with a history of the physical abuse of minors, for savings of a mere six percent, you don't know Rick Scott! Ricky needs seven!"

"Now, if you happen at all to be interested in asking Rick Scott about the conduct of the GEO Group, for goodness' sake, don't do it tomorrow night, he's busy. We actually checked, and he's going to be at a fundraiser at the home of, and this is true, the CEO of GEO Group." (George Zoley) "I believe the theme of that fundraiser is 'A Cesspool Of Unconstitutional And Inhumane Acts.'"

That takes us to close the end of the episode, and a final, very funny bit involving puppets singing about prison. It's at the tail end of the YouTube link above, and should probably be seen rather than read about.

Final note: The website of Aramark Corporation, the company that served prisoners maggoty food, states that the company is "recognized as one of the World's Most Ethical Companies, as determined by the Ethisphere Institute," and was recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the "World's Most Admired Companies."
posted by JHarris at 11:02 AM on July 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thanks for that writeup, JHarris.

Gonna go vomit now.
posted by inigo2 at 11:24 AM on July 21, 2014

And there's this from the wikipedia page for the Ethisphere Institute mentioned in JHarris' last paragraph above. (Just in case it sounded bogus to you, yes indeed it is.)
posted by Catblack at 12:43 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two of the four puppeteers from this week's episode were Stephanie D'Abruzzo, the original Kate Monster from Broadway's "Avenue Q" (and who was the patient in the musical episode of "Scrubs") and Noel Macneal, the eponymous Bear in the Big Blue House.
posted by inturnaround at 7:20 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Huh! Big Blue House was a Jim Henson Company production, so that's one point of connection, although I don't know if Macneal is still with them.
posted by JHarris at 3:05 PM on July 23, 2014

From the Ethisphere wikipedia article linked above:
Ethisphere was criticised[2] in March 2010 by the journalist Will Evans on Slate magazine for receiving payment from the companies it lists in its "World's Most Ethical Companies" awards and for claiming as members of its "panel of independent experts" people who did not actively participate. He also suggested that an award to McDonald's was inappropriate.
posted by el io at 10:15 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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