John Oliver examined the conditions that have allowed COVID-19 to ravage prisons and jails across the United States — and called for a wave of inmate releases to prevent swaths of unnecessary deaths — on Last Week Tonight Sunday.
Prisons and jails have been hotbeds for the virus for months, and cases have climbed significantly over the past few weeks amid new spikes around the country: There are now more than 68,000 infected inmates and prison deaths linked to COVID-19 are up 73%. As Oliver pointed out, neither prisons nor jails are built to cope with COVID-19 outbreaks — cells are small, making social distancing practically impossible; supplies like soap and masks are scarce as is proper testing; and those that contract the virus are frequently placed in solitary confinement because prisons have nowhere else to quarantine them.
“It’s not a great incentive for inmates to come forward if your policy is basically, ‘Look, just tell us that you’re sick and we’ll put you in the special punishment hole,’” Oliver spat.
Many local officials have tried to downplay outbreaks in prison by arguing that they’re effectively closed off from the rest of the population. But Oliver dispelled that notion, noting that the virus can spread outside via prison staff or by taking sick inmates to hospitals for treatment, not to mention the risks posed by the constant churn of people being booked into and released from jails.
With all these obvious dangers, Oliver called for the release of significant numbers of inmates to keep everyone safe. While he acknowledged not everyone released would be on their best behavior, he argued the “risks of carefully letting people out are vastly outweighed by the risks of leaving everyone inside.” He called for the release of those awaiting trial or those who couldn’t pay bail, or offenders who’ve served the majority of their time, especially the immunocompromised and elderly. Oliver even vouched for the release or furlough of particularly reprehensible criminals — like the infamous “pharma bro,” Martin Shkreli.
“Martin Shkreli, the pharma bro, tried to get released to home arrest so that he could work on developing a cure for the coronavirus, presumably so he could call it ‘Rona Juice’ and then sell it for 5,000% more than it should cost,” Oliver cracked. “And he was denied, and when you hear that, you might think, ‘Good, fuck that guy.’ And generally, yeah, fuck that guy. But in this instance, despite the fact that Martin Shkreli is an attention-starved tree frog who clearly wasn’t held enough as a tadpole — and despite his reasoning for being released being complete bullshit — I don’t want him to contract the virus and potentially die from it. I don’t want that for anyone, none of us should.”