Happy summer, everybody! And happy this summer, specifically, as the waning days of pandemic lockdown beckons with warmer weather and the promise of actually seeing other human beings in the quarantine-sallow flesh. That’s why John Oliver’s top story on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight was on popsicles, and how, “when it gets too hot, it can be a real problem.” Naw, just kidding, the main story was about prisons (perhaps the opposite of popsicles on any scale of fun and desirable summer things.) Specifically, Oliver’s bait-and-switch focused on the fact that some of the hottest places in the country house untold thousands of human beings in sweltering conditions where the heat index has been measured at 150 degrees, and where an increasingly aging and chronically ill population is acutely susceptible to everything from heatstroke, to heat-exacerbated heart attack, to a documented summertime rise in self-harm and suicide.
As Oliver notes in the closing of his typically furious and funny exposé on prison heat (and not the 1993 film of the same name, whose IMDb synopsis promises that “Four American babes on vacation in the Middle East run into trouble”), the solution is refreshingly simple. “We shouldn’t be cooking prisoners to death—the end,” states Oliver, noting that simply air conditioning America’s hottest prisons and jails will alleviate that particular social ill quite neatly. “I know this show has trained you to anticipate nuance,” admits Oliver, “but this one is really pretty straightforward.” So, easy fix, right?
Well, no, of course not. As Oliver notes, the intentionally cruel and racially biased nature of mass incarceration in this country aside (and that’s a big “aside”), the people in charge of prisoners’ safety aren’t so much interested in prisoner safety when it comes to, among other things, preventing them from literally cooking to death. Take Texas, which has spent over $7 million on a lawsuit to stop one of its prisons from installing AC, even though actually going ahead and putting in air conditioning would cost $4 million. Plucking some Texas officials out for this week’s representative villains, Oliver played a clip of Texas State Senator John Whitmire explaining, concerning the simple solution of AC for the incarcerated, “One, we don’t want to. Number two, we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to.” As Oliver points out, one—everything after “We don’t want to” is bullshit. Especially since—number two—Oliver’s already shown how “we couldn’t afford it” is utter and complete bullshit.
How much bullshit? Well, one Texas prison did spend the money to air condition its living quarters—for its in-house pig farm, because keeping valuable swine from literally turning into cooked bacon in the stifling and incessant Texas heat is inhumane. For pigs. Or the fact that another Texas prison ponied up the cash to air condition its staff quarters, while people like Texas State Senator John Whitmire stated, “Don’t commit a crime and you stay home and stay cool.” Or the deposition of one Warden Jeff Pringle of Hutchens State Jail after his staff waited 40 minutes to transport a convulsing, heatstroke-afflicted prisoner to the hospital where he, after coming in with a body temperature of 109.4 degrees, died. Pringle is shown stonewalling so egregiously over the death of Larry McCollum (in jail for passing a bad check) that it’s a testament to his unseen interlocutor that that lawyer never once just takes a swing at him. (It’s not Pringle’s worst sin, but pronouncing the word “speculate” as “spekalate,” isn’t especially endearing.)
As Oliver notes here, the cruelty is the point, a feature of the American prison system that saw one Texas prison fraudulently citing a disqualifyingly huge $109 million price tag to install AC in housing for developmentally disabled prisoners, even though the actual building itself cost $26 million to build. After all, they’re just human beings, not pigs, right? There are simply those, like Whitmire and Pringle, who hold that incarcerated people deserve every single deprivation and torture the U.S. prison system can devise. (And for those quibbling over the word “torture,” Oliver cites a United Nations Committee Against Torture report putting Texas prisons on an international human rights watchlist.) Then there’s the former head of a correctional officers union who, while admitting, “I don’t have love for these people,” states unequivocally, “We’re supposed to run prisons, not concentration camps.” And while Texas gets most of the heat, Oliver is quick to point out that this is a systemic problem all across the country, one with a simple solution that, as he concludes, “No one seems to give enough of a shit to do anything about.”