In this clip from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver (formerly of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”) breaks down multiple issues related to America’s standing as a carceral state. Using humor to help several bitter pills go down, Oliver provides a scathing commentary on topics from racial inequality in sentencing to prison rape and privatization. He describes US drug laws as “a little draconian, and a lot racist” and explains that current incarceration rates require “adorable singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain the number seven or what the moon is.” Pointing out the way that marginalization and a lack of political power make it possible for prisoners (and prisons) to be virtually invisible and ignored, Oliver even cleverly critiques how easily we, as a society, can joke about “one of the most horrifying things that can potentially happen to them.”
Using what Andrist, Chepp, Dean and Miller recently outlined in their Teaching Sociology article titled “Toward a Video Pedagogy”, this video could easily be implemented into any classroom discussing prison and incarceration in America. Students could be asked to identify as many different problems and issues as they can while viewing the clip to inform discussion afterward. Likewise, a written assignment could include choosing 1-2 specific issues (prison rape, privatization, etc.) and finding more “serious” articles to either support or refute the claims made by John Oliver. Or, the clip could serve as an excellent icebreaker for a lecture on these topics.
Lecturer at the School of Justice Studies Eastern Kentucky University
Doctoral Candidate in Criminology and Criminal Justice University of South Florida