“I know this might put you in the uncomfortable situation of having to argue on behalf of people who you might not find inherently sympathetic,” interjected Last Week Tonight host John Oliver midway through his sobering dissection of the problem of coronavirus among the incarcerated. Backing up his point, Oliver then put himself in the decidedly queasy position of advocating for rightfully imprisoned “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, whose appeal for early release from his punishment for being a cartoonishly evil little twerp was recently denied. (Strangely, a judge doubted that a venal, profiteering creep with no medical training was just all fired up to work on a COVID-19 cure.) But, as Oliver put it when examining just how dire is the situation for a vulnerable incarcerated population during a lethally contagious pandemic, the imprisoned—even smirking wee assholes like Shkreli—“are still members of our society.” And, at the very least, thus entitled not to be regarded as the disposable lab rats in a social experiment to see just how quickly people will die if crammed into closet-sized cells with a toilet and deprived of soap.
As with any discussion of prisoners’ rights, Oliver throughout was acutely aware of the circuit breaker reaction that allows many people to simply write off the incarcerated as unworthy of the same basic human rights as everyone else. Especially, as Oliver noted, Fox News viewers, whose steady intravenous diet of shows like “Crime Porn Form Old Whites, With Laura Ingraham and They’re Coming For You, With A Human Squash Court” (Tucker Carlson), encourages them to blithely write off the 2.2 million people in American prisons and jails. (Especially as mass incarceration in America disproportionately affects non-white people.) “We don’t punish people by giving them diseases,” stressed Oliver over clips of government officials tacitly (or blatantly) stating that, since prisons represent “a closed system,” well, whatever happens, happens.
For one thing, as Oliver tackled, no they fucking don’t. Even if your view of the incarcerated is as nuanced as the lock them up, throw away the key, and deprive them of any opportunity to social distance while withholding life-saving soap crowd, you should still be worried that there are nearly half a million workers who come home from working in these “death cruise ships” every single night. And that shuttling the arrested through such places guarantees the spread of COVID-19, even among those being held pre-trial since they can’t afford bail, nonviolent offenders, and the increasingly aging and immunocompromised. “What the fuck are we doing here?,” was Oliver’s eventual overriding question, as he raised the real specter of our prison industrial complex becoming a de facto, millions-capacity gas chamber. One might point to the words of infamously and unjustly imprisoned Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Instead, Oliver left us with the smuggled cellphone footage of one Aaron Campbell, a man currently incarcerated in Ohio. Having braved certain punishment to document the sick and dying crowded untended in American prison cells, Campbell has, indeed, been in retaliatory solitary confinement since the video aired in early April. That despite prison officials unsuccessfully blackmailing Campbell by telling him he can come out of the hole if he claims that his video was fake. Knowing that he was filming his own ticket to the torture of solitary, Campbell yet persisted in filming a situation seemingly designed to institutionally murder him and others like him, asking desperately, “What the fuck you want me to do? Die in this bitch?” As Oliver notes in revealing the inadequate and callous treatment of America’s incarcerated population, the answer to that question is pretty fucking clear.