In a piece that at 17 minutes long devotes more time—not to mention insight—to analyzing the U.S. prison system than a network news segment could possibly hope for, comedian and commentator John Oliver begins by noting that one in 100 people in the U.S. are currently doing time.
The picture goes downhill from there, as the segment brings in muppets to help explain what is going on. In the process Oliver doffs a hat to legitimate incarceration (“my daddy’s in jail because he killed four people,” says one muppet) as well as zoos (“it looks the same to him,” says a crocodile that Oliver mistakes for an alligator).
But amid the humor, the stark truth reigns. Outsourced prison services. Maggots in food. A prison system official who has a hard time recalling basic statistics such as the dimensions of a solitary-confinement cell. This is the level of attention and regard paid to 2.4 million people in America.
Not surprisingly, the majority of offenses are drug-related, and a high proportion of prisoners are of African-American and other minority descent, Oliver notes. Race’s role in all this is a theme that especially resonates in Indian country both north and south of the 49th Parallel. It is much discussed in Canada, for instance, that a disproportionate number of indigenous people are incarcerated compared to the general population.
Indigenous people make up just four percent of the general population, according to a report released by Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers last year, but they comprise nearly one quarter of all inmates, he told CBC News.
Similar statistics would appear to hold true in parts of the U.S. According to the Montana Department of Corrections 2013 Biennial Report, American Indians make up 20 percent of the state’s male prison population.
“One out of every five incarcerated male offenders is Native American,” the report stated. “That is almost three times higher than the rate at which natives are represented in the general Montana population. The proportion of the prison population that is native has changed little since 2008, but increased from 15.1 percent to 20 percent since 1997.”
North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and South Dakota also send disproportionate numbers of American Indians to prison, according to a 2009 report in the The Bismarck Tribune citing a 1999 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, American Indians and Crime.
The show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, airs on HBO. Watch the full prison segment below.