‘Last Week Tonight’: John Oliver Slams U.S. Prisons “Cooking Prisoners To Death” Through Lack Of Air Conditioning

On this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver decided to have some “summer fun” with his main segment.

“It’s been getting hotter and hotter outside…so tonight, we’re going to talk about popsicles. There are tons of them in America, and when they get too hot, it can be a real problem,” said the talk show host. “Sorry, did I say popsicles? I meant prisons.”

The host then segued to the “real problem” heat poses for America’s incarcerated. “Don’t be surprised. You knew no fun was happening here,” he deadpanned. “Don’t be mad at me; be mad at yourself. You chose to be here.”

Oliver noted that he has talked many times on his show about “the injustices of mass incarceration, and how little society seems to care” about them. From his perspective, “a pretty good example of that” is the fact that, in some of the country’s hottest states, including Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, over half the prisons lack air conditioning in their housing areas. In Texas, he explained, “that’s the case” in almost three-quarters of prisons, despite the fact that the heat index inside of them can reach 150 degrees.

At present, he noted, “there’s a growing population of older prisoners,” who are more susceptible to the heat. Over 40% of these people “have a chronic medical condition,” which puts them at increased risk of heat stroke. “That is remarkably dangerous, and I would argue that the only time getting murdered by the heat is acceptable is if you’ve committed the crime of being a lobster,” he said. “But unless you happen to be a tasty sea weirdo with edible arms and a pile of scrumptious ass meat that pairs beautifully with melted butter, I’m going to say that that is very wrong.”

He continued to explain that “physical conditions” are just one part of the equation. Within America’s prisons, there are also an increasing number of prisoners with mental health concerns. Many of these people are taking medications, which can interfere with their bodies’ ability to regulate temperature. Because of this, many prisoners avoid taking their medications when the temperature rises. This then explains, he said, “why there’s an increase in the “frequency of suicide watches and self-harm behaviors” over the course of the summer.

“This situation is so bad, the UN Committee Against Torture has expressed particular concern about deaths from extreme heat exposure in prison facilities in Texas,” said Oliver, “and while you probably assumed Texas prisons were bad, maybe not ‘International Human Rights Watch List’ bad.”

Oliver knows some viewers might be thinking, “Well, come on. It’s prison. These prisoners should not be comfortable.” And to this, he says, “F**k you.

“They’re human beings who, I would argue, deserve humane treatment, regardless of what they did,” he continued, noting that “even if you are fully on board with our current system of punitive justice on a ridiculous scale,” there are actually people directly upholding the prison system that find the situation indefensible.

Oliver said that another common rationale for denying prisoners reasonable air conditioning is that it would be too expensive to install. Yet another, expressed by politicians including State Sen. John Whitmore of Texas, is that they simply “don’t want to” provide it.

While prisoners oftentimes go without AC, it is provided in many cases to prison staff. In at least one case, reported in 2015 by ABC News 8, it was even being provided for a Texas prison’s in-house pig farms.

“Look, I’m not against pigs getting treated comfortably. I love pigs. Pigs are like big, chubby dogs you can eat at Christmas,” Oliver said. “I just question prioritizing their comfort over humans.”

While the host says “correction systems do seem to acknowledge” that they have an issue with heat, they too often deal with the issue through half measures, including large fans and water misters, which can oftentimes backfire, increasing the “heat stress” prisoners experience.

Ultimately, this all amounts to a “deadly situation,” which Oliver noted is “only going to get worse, especially as summers are getting hotter and hotter.”

“While this is clearly just one small part of a much larger discussion about whether and how prisons should exist in this country, until such time as we have that discussion, there’s actually an easy solution to this one problem, and that is, prisons need air conditioning, so put air conditioning in. That’s it,” Oliver concluded. “I know this show has trained you to anticipate nuance, but this one is really pretty straightforward. We shouldn’t be cooking prisoners to death, the end.”

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