HBO's Left-Wing John Oliver Blasts Privatization of Prisons

John Oliver used the Sunday July 20 edition of HBO’s Last Week Tonight as a platform to condemn the privatization of the American prison system. Rather than describing both sides of the issue, Oliver told horror stories from prisons that outsource healthcare and food provision without mentioning similar stories from publicly run prisons. According to Oliver, the verdict is straightforward: “private prisons are bad.”

The British comedian spent 18 of his 30 minute show decrying the “drug laws that do seem to be a little draconian, and a lot racist,” as well as the “dismantling of our mental health system” that lead to America having “more prisoners at the moment than China.” Of course, he failed to mention that the Chinese government usually chooses the death penalty over imprisonment, and according to CNN, “executed more people than any other country last year.” [See video below. Click here for MP3 audio]

According to Oliver, “the key problem with running prisons as businesses is that prisons are then run as businesses.” He downplayed the cost savings of prison privatization, describing them as “savings of a mere 6 percent.” Of course, 6 percent is significant “in a $5.7 billion state system.”

The HBO host did not address the added incentive for both private and public prisons to be more cost effective and efficient, or that the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice has done many studies on the issue and found private and public prison conditions comparable. Instead, his focus was on portraying private prisons as institutions that allow “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.”

The segment has been lauded by Slate and Huffington Post.  

See transcript below:

HBO
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
July 20, 2014

 11:12 a.m. Eastern
2 minutes and 17 seconds


JOHN OLIVER: That's true. We have over two million people behind bars right now. We have more prisoners at the moment than China. Than China! We don't have more of anything than China! Other than, of course, debt to China. And it didn't always use to be -- used to be this way. Our prison population has expanded eightfold since 1970. The only other thing that's grown at that rate since the 1970's is varieties of Cheerios. Fuck you, fruity Cheerios! You're trumped up foot loops and you know it! And look, look  our prison population has exploded for a number of reasons. From the dismantling of our mental health system, to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which help explain why 97% 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, and it accounts for a quarter of admissions to state prisons. And of course it's tricky to know how to feel about this, because on the one hand, the War on Drugs has completely solved our nation's drug problem. So that's good. But on the other hand, our drug laws do seem to be a little draconian and a lot racist. Because while white people and African Americans use drugs about the same amount, a study has found that African Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses at up to10 times the rate. 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.

11:32 p.m. Eastern
2 minutes and 16 seconds


OLIVER: The key problem with running prisons as businesses is that prisons are then run as businesses. Pay and staffing ratios are so much lower that a GEO group youth facility in Mississippi sometimes had just two officers overseeing as many as 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 interests of balance, I will point out that they got an award from the state of Florida, citing their "bold and innovative cost-saving business practices." Although, I think we all know, when the state of Florida gives you an award, that award is basically sarcastic. In fact, a quick side note -- the award was signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott, who has led the drive for prison privatization in his state, but on one condition.

GOV. RICK 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 7%, we don't do prison privatization.

OLIVER: Hey, hey, 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 6%? You don't know Rick Scott, okay? Ricky needs 7. Ricky wants 7. Ricky likes 7, okay? Now, if you happen to be interested in asking Rick Scott about the conduct of the GEO group, for goodness sake, don't do it tomorrow night. He is busy. We actually checked, and he's going to be at a fundraiser at the home of -- and this is true -- the C.E.O. Of GEO group. I believe the theme of that fundraiser is, "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhumane acts." This is all so depressing. Private prisons are bad, yes, but the whole system just seems fundamentally broken.

Laura Flint
Laura Flint is a 2014 summer intern for the MRC's News Analysis Division.