John Oliver: Release prisoners to slow coronavirus outbreak in prisons

San Diego County Jail (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
San Diego County Jail (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images) /

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver returned to its coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic

The novel coronavirus pandemic may have been moved out of the top story spot over the past few weeks but it isn’t a story that is going away. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has dedicated a majority of season 7 to covering it and continued to do so on Sunday night.

Last Week Tonight has approached the COVID-19 story from multiple angles. Like other late night television shows, it has criticized the federal government’s response and pushed back against calls to reopen the country despite medical experts’ recommendations.

More specific topics like the impact on sports, how testing works, and more have also been discussed by Oliver since March. The latest came on Sunday night as Oliver examined the outbreak of COVID-19 in U.S. jails and prisons.

Oliver has a history of focusing on prison conditions and the rights of inmates. It was on display again as Oliver explained how the virus has spread and what can be done to stop it.

John Oliver emphasized that the concern is not just about prisoners

As an advocate for inmate rights, it wasn’t surprising to hear Oliver snap back at government officials quick to dismiss the inmate population. Oliver condemns the mindset that prisoners are not part of the community and therefore their health has no impact on a state or county’s status amid the pandemic.

Beyond these moral arguments, Oliver also reminds the audience that there are around 445,000 employees at prisons and jails across the country. These are the people returning home to their families every day and who are out in the community. The novel coronavirus crisis in prisons can’t be ignored just because it affects prisoners, says Oliver.

The Last Week Tonight host also offers up a counterargument to those opposed to releasing inmates to mitigate the health risks. He points to those who pose little to no public safety risk or who are only in jail because they could not afford bail.

Oliver ultimately circles back to the health and safety of prisoners currently serving out their sentences. These sentences have gone beyond just punishment for a crime according to Oliver:

"You’re never just being sentenced to time. You’re being sentenced to a lifetime of social stigma, futile job interviews, and roadblocks to necessities like housing. All of that is immoral enough, there is frankly no reason whatsoever we should now also be sentencing people to die from a virus. Because that’s not justice, that’s neglect."

It’s another strong argument from Oliver and another one that cements his position as an advocate for the incarcerated. It’s also proof that just because some Americans now want to ignore the pandemic or ignore those on the margins of society, Last Week Tonight won’t do the same.

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