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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Video: John Oliver Eviscerates the American Prison System


This mega-important late night segment tackles the "horribly broken" prison industrial complex, that most of us know little about. With a little help from singing muppets, of course.

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If there were one video to watch about the American prison system, it’s this one. On “Last Week Tonight” (video below), host John Oliver addresses “something Americans simply can’t get enough of: prison.” With over 2 million Americans currently in prison or jail, we have the most prisoners of any country in the world. But, as Oliver points out, most Americans don’t know much about prison beyond jokes about “dropping the soap” (a reference to prison rape, which reportedly has happened to 4% of prisoners). So he does his best to explain, with precision and cutting humor, the whole prison industrial complex, which he calls “a little draconian, and a lot racist.” He tackles everything from racial profiling in drug arrests, to rampant sexual assault and human rights abuses inside, to privatization of prisons, to Americans’ overall ignorance on the subject.

Oliver even references a recent Sesame Street skit explaining “in-car-ceration” (“when someone breaks the law—a grown-up rule”) as an example of how bad things have gotten, that we “now need adorable puppets to explain prison to children.” He concludes the segment with his own visit to Sesame Street, where he talks to some muppets, including Timmy, whose “daddy is in prison for a low-level drug offense.” To help them feel better about the “horrible broken” prison system, they all of course decide to sing about it. Social commentary in the form of rhymes, like—”our prison population is bigger than Slovenia, ’cause we put people in jail instead of treating schizophrenia”—do somehow inspire a little bit of hope.