Baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet, and… prisons? America’s three most iconic things could probably be expanded to include incarceration. Consider this: nearly 1 in 100 Americans (including the childhood population) are behind bars. Amazingly, 1 in every 35 adults in the United States are either in probation, parole or incarcerated.
China has a far lower prison population — and those are in raw numbers not controlling for their immensely larger overall size as a country. According to statistics compiled by the BBC, the US jails 724 of its citizens per 100,000. China stands at only 118 per 100,000, a rate that is roughly seven times lower. The only two countries that even come close to the US in terms of jail populations as a percentage of overall population are the Ukraine and Russia — two countries notorious for human rights abuses and poor prison conditions. Just think about that for a minute.
The incarceration epidemic has a number of culprits. Punitive drug laws, mandatory minimums and the privatization of prisons are all at the center of the problem. Privatized prisons cut corners to save the state money, serving unsanitary food, jeopardizing the safety of both personnel and inmates with fewer guards, and cutting back on healthcare spending. One prisoner accused a privatized prison of filling a wound from her c-section with sugar, an early 20th century technique.
One private prison in Mississippi that was supposed to care for the needs of prisoners with disabilities was accused of being a “cesspool” where inmates “are underfed and routinely held in cells that are infested with rats and have no working toilets or lights.” These are conditions more associated with a Russian gulag than the US, but they are happening here under private prisons that view their inmates as dollars to be exploited.
And the racist nature of drug laws cannot go unsaid. “It reminds me of a joke,” John Oliver said in his seventeen minute segment covering America’s prison system. “Black people who commit drug offenses, they go to jail like this,” pausing to show a cuffed hand, “whereas white people don’t go to jail at all.”
Oliver brings the point home with a clip from Sesame Street where the puppets explain how one of their parents is in prison. Yes, children learning from puppets about their parents’ incarceration. Oliver’s segment is simply a must-watch expose on America’s prison system. It goes full circle in the best way possible. Watch the full clip below: