John Oliver Treats Prisoner Re-Entry As The Unfair Process That It Is — VIDEO
John Oliver wants to help out his newest potential viewers. At the beginning of November, 6,000 federal prisoners were released early from prison. The release — the largest ever from the federal corrections system — stemmed from a change that gave relief to drug offenders who were hit with mandatory minimum sentence laws. They were handed down really long sentences due to laws that were then on the books but have since been repealed. During Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explored prisoner re-entry and brought ex-prisoners up to speed on what they've missed.
"If you're one of them, let me bring you up to speed on what you may have missed since you have been inside: Uber has replaced cabs, everyone pretends to like kale now, Matthew McConaughey has an Oscar, and in four states, pot is legal, which for some of you, must seem like a cruel, cruel irony," Oliver said.
Cruel is right, and Oliver wasted no time before bashing the system of mass incarceration that he has investigated before. If you're a loyal viewer of Last Week Tonight, you know that the show has covered the many ways Americans can wind up in prison, from small municipal code violations to not being able to afford bail, mandatory minimums, and public defenders lacking time and resources. This week's episode focused on prisoner re-entry, or former prisoners trying to make it after release.
First, Oliver called out some people who aren't so happy about the mass release. Ray Hunt from the Houston Police Officer's Union warned of an increase in crime, Bill O'Reilly called it a "racial deal that will put Americans in jeopardy," and Fox News' coverage asked of the prisoners, "Are they dangerous?" Oliver, in pointing out how ridiculous these concerns are, said these prisoners were going to be released anyway, so it's just the timing that changed. "Had it happened two years later, they wouldn't even have noticed," he said. Besides, more than 600,000 people are released every year. "So 6,000 more would represent an increase of less than one percent. And the only time anyone notices a change that small is your dad with the thermostat."
The real damning moments came when Oliver explored life after prison. It's often not the happy reunion and return to normality like it was for SpongeBob after he got out of Bikini Bottom Prison. About half of all prisoner soon find themselves back in jail. That's $80 billion with a 50 percent success rate. Oliver called the facts "horrifying" but not that surprising when you explore the facts.
Oliver looked to the case of Glenn Ford who was exonerated and released from prison after more than 30 years. He was interviewed on CBS' Sixty Minutes and talked about what he got when he walked out of the prison's gates: a $20 gift card. After 30 years of wrongful imprisonment! As Oliver puts it:
A $20 gift card. If you're exonerated, you should probably be leaving prison with more than you take home after a disappointing office Secret Santa.
Then there's the question of where to live afterwards. Due to a Clinton-era policy, some residents of public housing can't host family members who have been convicted of a crime. If they come over — even for a visit — it can mean conviction. Oliver showed the case of a woman who faces eviction because her son, who had once robbed a corner store, helped her bring in some groceries and was caught. Caught doing a good deed! What lesson was her son supposed to learn? Oliver said:
Never help your sick mother with groceries sounds more like the kind of lesson you'd learn from a shitty boy scout leader: "Ey, kids, never help your sick mother with groceries, always know where your exits are in a dog fight, and never pay a stripper up front. Scouts dismissed."
Oliver goes over the many other things a felony conviction can cut these people off from in addition to housing: voting, a drivers license, food stamps, and even one Florida county's home weatherization program.
So I guess Florida is perfectly happy to put people behind bars but they draw the line at putting them behind storm windows and insulation.
Not relying on government programs to pay for these things would be fine if former convicts could get jobs. Oliver goes over the job application process and how many applications ask about criminal records, excluding many applicants before the interview stage. He said the Ohio Department of Corrections even coaches recently released prisoners not to mention prison if they don't have to: "Don't use negative words like 'went to jail.'" But instead: "Do use terms like 'relocated' or 'contract ended.' Both of these are true." Oliver thinks this is fair. After all:
Before you judge, that is not a lie. Everyone tries to present the most flattering image of themselves. You do it when you use a filter on an Instagram photo of yourself. Even the queen does it. ... She knows you can't put that face on money.
Oliver ends the segment interviewing a former prisoner, Bilal Chatman, who has beaten the odds — or as Oliver puts it, succeeded in the "minor miracle" of overcoming all the obstacles society has set for re-entry. Chatman spent a decade in prison for a non-violent drug offense and life after jail wasn't easy. He told about how hard it was not to break the terms of his parole and wind up back in jail. Not because he couldn't find a job, but because he had one and his parole officer wouldn't be flexible enough to meet Chatman before or after work. "I felt like I was set up to fail," Chatman said.
Chatman went on to make it through parole and now is a supervisor at his job, where he even does some of the hiring and firing. He said that many of his co-workers don't know about his criminal past and it was difficult to go on the show because he didn't want them to think about him differently — or to be defined by his past.
"I don't want anyone to look at me as the ex-con. I want them to look at me as the person I am now. I'm a supervisor. I'm a good employee. I'm an employer. I even hire and I fire. So I want them to look at me as that."
Experiences like Chatman are exemplary, but as Oliver argues, what if we didn't set ex-prisoners up to fail? More of these 6,000 recently released prisoners might have a better chance. Watch the full segment below.
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/HBO