In what may be its most depressing, yet important, episode yet, Last Week Tonight discussed the challenges that face those who are released from prison. In particular, host John Oliver discussed the fact that the national rate of recidivism in the United States is an appalling 50 percent, and it is costing the country nearly $80 billion dollars "to fail half the time".
Before launching into the incredibly powerful 20 minute segment, Oliver, as usual, quickly recapped some of the week's major news stories. He began with the U.K., "Earth's least magic kingdom", and the debate over potential new online surveillance laws. The proposed legislation would make it legal for the government to record which websites were viewed, store the data for up to a year, and authorize the government to share this information with police.
The show moved on to discussing Veteran's Day (or Remembrance Day, for those in Canada) and the interplay between the military and professional sports. An investigation by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake revealed that the moving tributes to America's veterans are often paid for by the Department of Defence, to the tune of $6.8 million.
Lastly, they discussed the Washington Redskins, "amazingly, only the 19th most indefensible thing about the NFL" and the cancellation of their federal trademark registrations. The team responded by filing a list of other potentially offensive names that the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office has approved in the past, likening their name to other offensive names, which were hilariously read out in the brief segment.
Before launching into the main topic of the show, Oliver reminded viewers of the depressing criminal justice topics discussed in prior shows, including mandatory minimums, bail issues, public defenders, and how even minor municipal violations can "put you in the fuck barrel". The topic is particularly relevant in light of the 6,000 non-violent, minor drug offenders being released from federal prisons.
While the right wing media is essentially losing their collective minds over the release of primarily non-violent offenders, Oliver reminded viewers that these releases were likely to happen in short order regardless, and would have then flown under Fox News' radar. He also pointed out that over 600,000 people are released from prison every year - making the recent release of 6,000 less than one percent.
Being released from prison doesn't resemble anything close to how it is portrayed in film and television. In fact, 50 percent of people released from prison will find themselves back inside. However, once one analyzes the challenges and hardships faced for those released from prison, it isn't hard to imagine how they could find themselves back in. In order to illustrate the particular hardships faced, Oliver walked viewers through exactly what happens when one is released from the moment the gates open. Even exonerated prisoners are released with little money, little opportunity, and often far from familiarity.
Oliver discussed how having a criminal record can prevent those released from prison from obtaining government food benefits, or living in public housing. While the solution to those problems seems to be to obtain employment, the options for ex-prisoners are extremely limited. In some states, ex-prisoners cannot be hired for positions as nurses, teachers, septic tank cleaner, or even an alligator rancher. It is so difficult for some to obtain employment that the Ohio State Rehabilitation and Corrections Reentry Resource Manual even says people should avoid phrases such as "went to jail", and instead write "relocated" or "contract ended" on application forms to explain the end of your previous employment.
Even if an ex-prisoner manages to find and keep work, "satisfying the conditions of parole can be maddeningly difficult" as "two-thirds" of those on parole who return to prison do so because of parole violations, not new crimes. These violations can range in severity from "missing appointments or failing a drug test. For some, it may be because they're dealing with untreated substance abuse or mental illness".
Oliver highlighted the case of Bilal Chatman, who against all odds managed to find full-time, 9 to 5 employment after leaving prison. However, his parole officer finished his work day at 4:00, and refused to help Chatman figure out an alternate way to both continue to work his regular work day and attend his parole meetings. Chatman "felt [he] was set up to fail". The only practical way for him to do both was to "own a DeLorean, a TARDIS, or whatever the fuck Jean-Claude Van Damme used in Time Cop".
In some states, ex-prisoners have to pay for to be on parole, and if they don't pay for their parole, they wind up back in jail. One parolee was "forced to make a truly ridiculous choice" - he wound up selling drugs in order to pay the state of Pennsylvania for his parole.
Oliver implored viewers to care about this incredibly important issue, saying:
It's not easy to care about the welfare of ex-prisoners, and some are going to re-offend no matter what you do. But the fact remains, over 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released, so it's in everyone's interest that we try to give them a better chance of success.
The segment ended by putting a very human face on the topic, with Oliver interviewing Chatman about the ongoing struggle he faced after leaving prison.
You can watch the entire segment below.