The American prison system is nothing short of a mess. On every level, the system is a failure, from wrongful incarcerations and harsh living conditions to unfathomable and unacceptable guard brutality. On the latest Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dug deep into one of the more underreported aspects of the realities of the prison system: inmate labor.
As Oliver notes, “prisons are basically run by inmates.” About 61% of inmates have jobs, typically in positions cooking, cleaning and maintaining the operations in the prisons. The average wage is a staggering 63 cents per hour. Beth Schwartzapfel, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, points out that in “Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, prisoners are not paid for their work at all.” Some prisons threaten punishment for inmates who don’t work, with the potential for placement in solitary confinement.
That’s slavery. It’s constitutionally sanctioned, too; Oliver highlights that written into the 13th Amendment—you know, the one that abolishes slavery—is the verbiage “ ... except as a punishment for crime.” To add to this dehumanization, the most lucrative jobs for inmates are often ones that create a spectacle out of their pain, such as the footage from a “prison rodeo” that Oliver shows, in which inmates sit around a card table until a bull sends them flying. You can’t make this shit up.
Prisoners have to work dozens of hours just to afford the necessities to live, things like soap, shampoo and, for folks trying to expedite their incarceration, legal fees. Oliver shares footage of a woman describing how she needs to pay a $4 copay to see a doctor while earning 9 cents per hour after tax. That’s a whole month’s wages, and a veritable fraction of the minimum wage mandated across the country.
The whole episode is filled with maddening stories and details about the wage inequities of prisoners. You can watch the whole clip from Sunday’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver below.