Last month brought the largest one-time release of federal prisoners – 6,000 mostly low-level drug offenders – in history. But a sad majority of those former inmates will encounter myriad roadblocks on their road to becoming a regular citizen – from getting a job to acquiring food and shelter – and statistics show that roughly half will end up right back in prison. John Oliver devoted Sunday's Last Week Tonight to this troubling subject.
"Unfortunately, we have a lot of misconceptions about what leaving prisons is actually like," the host says in the clip. "Perhaps because it's often presented in movies and TV as a happy moment, when former inmates rejoin family and friends and put their lives back together … But the sad truth is, for a high number of prisoners, their time on the outside may be brief.
"Once your money runs out, you can find yourself hungry and desperate because, in many states, anyone with felony drug convictions can be banned from government food benefits," he continues. "And if your family lives in public housing, you may not be able to return home because some places require tenants to sign papers banning relatives with convictions from entering their homes … Depending on where you live, a felony conviction can cut you off from everything from voting to a driver's license."
Getting a job as an ex-con is an uphill battle: Many employers reject job applications from ex-felons, and there are state and local bans preventing them from working as nurses, septic tank cleaners and even "alligator ranchers."
For many, the problem is dealing with parole services. "Two-thirds of parolees who go back to prison do so not due to a new crime but because of parole violations – sometimes for reasons as simple as missing appointments or failing a drug test," Oliver says. Parole barriers can be ridiculous: In some states, you may be forced to pay for probation and parole service – a tragic irony that often leads criminals back to a life of crime.
At least 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, and Oliver argues it's a "minor miracle" for these people to overcome the obstacles. To end the segment, the host offers a spotlight to one man, Bilal Chatman, who turned his life around with a supervisor job and a new outlook.
"I'm here because of the fact that, I may never do this again," Chatman says. "I've done other interviews. I may never do this again because this takes me back to being that prisoner again. I'm not that prisoner today. I'm a taxpayer. I work. I'm a citizen. I'm a voter. That's who I want to be. Those are the things that define me today. It's not what I did before. I did things years ago that I'm ashamed of, that I don't like. But I don't want to relive that. At the same time, I want this opportunity to be for somehow who say, 'Oh, man, I can never get a chance.' There's always a chance. Just keep going."