John Oliver explains prison labor, how prisoners spend money, and who profits

John Oliver (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
John Oliver (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) /

Another insightful and informative episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver looked at the economics of prison labor.

John Oliver continues to entertain and educate with each episode of Last Week Tonight. This week the topic was prison labor as Oliver explored the ethics and economics of putting prisoners to work behind bars.

This subject area isn’t new to Last Week Tonight. The show has done a number of segments on the justice system, private prisons, and mass incarceration. But on Sunday night, Oliver focused less on how prisoners end up in jail but instead on what they do once inside.

Anyone familiar with how prisons work, whether from reading about it, watching a documentary, or seeing a movie, has some idea of prison labor. Inmates are put to work on normal tasks with some jobs being more desirable than others. Oliver took a deeper dive by covering prisoners’ wages, how they spend that money, and the companies that can turn a profit from it all.

Not many people would guess that inmates are also working as firefighters or in rodeos. Oliver points out that these are extreme examples but it serves his point that prisoners are working a wide range of jobs but the pay is relatively insignificant across the board.

Oliver explains how this isn’t likely to change given the money involved. He uses the clip of the Louisiana sheriff complaining about how releasing prisoners takes away good workers from the prison. These prisons have become so reliant on prisoner labor that paying the inmates a fair wage would be far too costly.

Per usual, Oliver anticipates any questions the audience may have by going in to why prisoners need money in the first place. Beyond legal fees, he shows how many inmates need money to purchase basic necessities or to see a doctor. Oliver highlights the gap between what prisoners earn and what they need to spend on for simple needs.

Again, Oliver is prepared to answer anyone suggesting that prisoners just receive money from the outside. He spotlights the companies that profit off transferring money to inmates like JPay that can charge 45% per transaction. In typical Oliver fashion, another target gets caught up in this story as he delivers a fantastic dig at Ticketmaster.

Oliver concludes the segment by exposing how Securus Technologies is working to basically eliminate face-to-face interaction between prisoners and their families. This would force more phone calls and video chats using their services and therefor more profit for the company.

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Overall, this segment shows why Last Week Tonight is once again nominated for an Emmy. John Oliver draws a line showing how extremely low wages for prison labor can negatively affect parent-child relationships. In 18 minutes, Oliver manages to get huge laughs from fans all while exposing a major social issue. That is the best way to summarize Last Week Tonight‘s goal every week.