In America, more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year. And John Oliver wants you to know that by and large, the US sets up these ex-inmates to fail.
As Oliver explained on his November 8 show, in the 1980s and '90s federal and state lawmakers imposed legal barriers — widely known as "collateral consequences" — that effectively stop released inmates from getting a job, an education, or even a house.
These barriers take various forms, including some laws that make it hard for former inmates to even visit family. In one case covered by the Associated Press, New York City resident Geraldine Miller faced the threat of eviction from her public housing because her son, an ex-convict, helped her with groceries when she became ill. "Look, we all want people who've committed crimes to learn their lesson," Oliver said. "But 'never help your sick mother with groceries' sounds more like the kind of lesson you learned from a shitty Boy Scout leader."
But the possibility of getting your family evicted just by showing up at their house is only one of many ways prisoners face tough odds upon release. The result: Anywhere from one in three to as many as half of former inmates end up back in prison within a few years.
The many legal barriers to a prisoner reentering society
For example, it's legal for employers to ask in job applications about someone's criminal record and not hire someone for a prior crime — even something as minor as a marijuana possession offense. But this can make it much more difficult for inmates to reintegrate into society: If they can't get a job, they're much more likely to turn to criminal activities to make ends meet. So reformers started "ban the box," which seeks to stop employers from asking about criminal records in job applications — although they can do criminal background checks later on in the hiring process. (In reformers' latest victory, President Barack Obama instituted "ban the box" for federal agencies.)
Collateral consequences apply to all sorts of other issues, as well: Some states ban ex-prisoners from working at all sorts jobs, from nursing to alligator ranching. People who have served out felony convictions often can't apply for public housing or Pell Grants. They can't vote in many states. They can't receive welfare benefits. All of these things can make it more difficult for a former inmate to get a job and legally make a living, or at the very least signal to him that society will never accept him, making him much more likely to turn to a life of crime.
Dismantling the collateral consequences of prison is, of course, not an idea without controversy. Many people genuinely believe that prisoners, especially those convicted of violent crimes, should face lifelong punishments for their misdeeds.
But most prisoners are going to be let out at some point. If they face enormous barriers once they're out, they're going to be more likely to reoffend. Not only does that cost taxpayers even more money as they pay for that inmate's incarceration, it also defeats one of the purposes of prison in the first place — to stop and deter crime.
"Over 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released," Oliver said. "So it's in everyone's interest that we try to give them a better chance of success. Because under the current system, if they do manage to overcome all the obstacles we have set, it's a minor miracle."