John Oliver on Disturbing Realities of U.S. Prison Labor – Rolling Stone
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Watch John Oliver Examine the Disturbing Realities of Prison Labor

Last Week Tonight host explores how low wages, high fees make it difficult for some inmates to rebuild

On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver offered a disturbing portrait of the sad realities of prison labor, examining the low wages, institutional corruption, inhumane practices and exorbitant fees that stand between inmates and their attempts to rebuild behind bars.

Sixty-one percent of people in prison have jobs, including common positions in janitorial or kitchen work. But they’re paid a national average of 63 cents per-hour, and some states — Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama — don’t pay inmates at all. “I know that, to many, inmates are not a naturally sympathetic group of people,” Oliver said. “In fact, when there was a push to get a higher wage for those working behind bars a few years ago, [some Fox News commentators] found it hilarious.”

“‘Crime doesn’t pay’ does sound like common sense,” the host continued, after showing a clip of talking heads using that exact phrase. “But it’s much, much more complicated than that. The truth is: When you combine the low to non-existent wages the prisoners get paid with the surprisingly high costs that they and their families can incur while they are inside, the current system can wind up costing all of us.”

Some inmate jobs can be incredibly fulfilling, but also dangerous. Around 12 percent of firefighters responding to California’s wildfires in 2018 were prison inmates. But they earned a base pay of between $3 and $5 per day — and even though they’re learning new skills that could be useful to them upon release, it won’t matter. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “California law bars those with a criminal record from being licensed emergency responders.”

“Being a firefighter in prison is not unlike being an art history in college,” Oliver cracked. “It may be fun while you’re in there, but you’re not going to be doing it once you get out. Do you here that, Thessalie? You’re going to work in human resources. You’re going to have a favorite coffee mug and a throw pillow that says, ‘It’s wine o’clock somewhere,’ and you’re going to stare out the window, yearning for the sweet release of death, just like everybody else.”

In addition to low pay and occasional workplace hazards, inmates also face a lot of expenses, from legal fees to basic necessities like personal hygiene products. Until 2018, female prisoners in Arizona were allotted just 12 pads per month; buying one additional pack of pads took about 21 hours of work. In the state, they have to pay a co-pay to see a doctor in order to request a medical dispensation.

While family members can send money to prisoners, the costs can be daunting and unrealistic for some, especially because for-profit companies like JPay charge fees as high as 45 percent to transfer funds. “Look out, Ticketmaster,” Oliver joked. “When it comes to dickish transaction fees, there’s a new asshole in town.”

JPay’s parent company, Securus, is one of the biggest names in charging for prisoner phone calls and video visits, a staggering $1.2 billion-a-year industry. Phone calls within states can go over a dollar-per-minute, and other facilities served by Securus “have had fees over $3 for the first minute and 16 cents for each additional one.”

For families on tight budgets, those fees are difficult to navigate around. And the obvious workaround — in-person visits — is even becoming difficult. “Prisons, and especially jails, have been phasing out in-person visits in favor of video visitations, meaning that you can turn up to see a loved-one and still have to sit in a different room and talk to them on a screen,” Oliver said. “Incredibly, this is something Securus has contractually mandated. Up until 2015, some of their contracts with facilities had them promise to eliminate all face-to-face visitation, and that is just evil. ‘Machine that makes money by stopping people from visiting their families’ sounds like an item at the top of Satan’s Amazon wish list, right before super bedbugs, cauliflower rice and just the actual existence of Amazon.”

The people running such facilities have cited safety issues as the main motivator behind the switch, insisting that video visits eliminate contraband. However, Oliver noted that jails and prisons often get a cut of the profits, which are supposedly funneled into “inmate welfare funds,” but often fund staff salaries or even items like tasers.

“The current system of low wages and high cost is clearly no good for anyone but the companies, who are somehow managing to massively profit from this,” Oliver summarized. “There are things that we can do here, small and large. New York City recently made phone calls from jails free, and Connecticut will consider similar legislation next year. And if we want to make bigger changers like paying prisoners more, we could do that, although … it would undeniably be incredibly expensive and very unpopular.

“You saw people argue, ‘Crime doesn’t pay — that’s just common sense,'” he continued. “But part of the way mass incarceration persists in this country is by keeping the true costs of it off the books. And we’re currently doing that through a combination of underpaid labor from prisoners themselves, financially draining families who’ve done absolutely nothing wrong and occasionally managing to monetize prisoners being launched into the fucking air with livestock. And at that point, I would argue we’ve come a long, long way from common sense.”

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