Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver shows how prison labor practices make that Shawshank warden look like an amateur

Bob Gunton as Warden Norton, John Oliver as himself
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

“That is just evil” might have been a discarded brainstorming title for Last Week Tonight, as frequently as John Oliver discovers a person, business practice, or politician whose actions and words smack of outright super-villainy. (He did take a swipe at current corporate overlords AT&T on Sunday’s episode for their customer service, as ever throwing a mock hissy-fit at the expense of his “business-daddy.”) And while that communications concern’s—let’s call spotty—reputation when it comes to its customers isn’t great, AT&T’s got nothing on companies like one Securis Technologies, whose stranglehold on incarcerated people’s communication with their loved ones is, once more, according to Oliver, “just evil.”

Part of Oliver’s main story about the way that prisoners are exploited for profit, Securis’s venal and predatory rates on phone calls and video chats from family members to their imprisoned mothers, fathers, sons, and/or daughters is revealed as not just outrageously expensive (fees turn a daily connection into a choice between maintaining contact and diaper money), but also increasingly mandatory. That’s because Securis Technologies also writes into many of its prison contracts the complete elimination of face-to-face visitation, which is apparently a lot harder to monetize. A “machine that makes money by stopping people from seeing their families” is, according Oliver, right at the top of Satan’s Amazon wish list. (Also listed, Amazon.)

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Then there are companies like JPay, often the only way for family members to send incarcerated loved ones money, who charge usurious fees (an additional $20 to send $50 to an inmate), leaving one beleaguered mother explaining that sending her son money means not paying bills that month. “Watch out Ticketmaster,” beamed Oliver, “When it comes to dickish transaction fees, there’s a new asshole in town!”

But don’t prisoners get paid to work while in prison, you might ask? Well, the average prison work rate is, according to Oliver 63 cents per hour (while some states—Texas among them, not surprisingly—don’t pay inmates at all), a pittance for often necessary institutional work that leaves prisoners having to make suspiciously Kafka-sounding choices all the time. Especially women, whose penurious supply of free pads and tampons often has to be supplemented with, in one testifying woman’s case, her 12 cents an hour job. And if working 21 hours to be able to afford one very necessary personal item sounds bad, that’s not taking into account the fact that prisoners in her state (Arizona) have to supply a $4 co-pay solely for the right to make the case that they need more tampons—which they then have to work 21 hours to secure, if the prison physician allows it.

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As Oliver put it, the issue of prison labor and institutions and companies profiting from the people under their supposed care isn’t going to be fixed easily. For one thing, those blow-dried propagandists at Fox News are shown repeatedly grinning their condescending death’s-head grins while they ask why people in prison should get anything for their labors at all. Which, as Oliver notes, is sort of the dictionary definition of slavery. (“Even if you have to ask it, something has already gone very wrong,” said Oliver in response to one documentarian’s question, “How is that not slavery?”) For another, the Fox “fuck ’em” mantra strikes a chord in too many people when it comes to the incarcerated, even in the face of abuses outlined by one unwisely frank Louisiana sheriff named Steve Prator, who is seen complaining that prison reforms are robbing him of prisoners who do work he’s now going to have to actually pay for. (You really haven’t heard good-old American evil until you hear a white Southern sheriff complain about losing “the good ones” to the outside world.)

As Oliver put it with regard to the mindset about prisoners working while locked up, it’s “less as humans paying their debt to society and more as a pool of essentially free labor.” You know, like slavery. And don’t even get him started on the tradition of prison rodeos (again, Louisiana), where prisoners’ low pay and pressing needs often make them sign on to literally risk their lives with angry bulls for a desperately needed one-time cash payment. Even Warden Norton at Shawshank didn’t sink that low. (That was the warden in Stir Crazy.)

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.