On Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO, the comedian host devoted almost 18 minutes to a segment critiquing the U.S. prison system. During this examination, Oliver zeroed in on an incident that occurred in February at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement.

During the hearing, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asks Charles Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons: “How big is a cell? How big is the average cell in solitary?”

It’s the kind of question you’d think the head of our federal prison system would be able to answer quickly. Instead, Samuels “almost comically struggles,” as Oliver puts it. And as Samuels attempts to stall for time, Franken wonders aloud, “Am I asking this wrong?”  

Finally, Samuels wagers a guess. “The average size should be equivalent to 6 by 4” feet – dimensions less than those of a queen-size bed. It’s not until later in the hearing that the prisons director touches back on the question with a new answer: “Actually, it’s 10 by 7 – for the cell size.”

For comparison, that’s just a bit bigger than the 6-by-8-foot solitary confinement cells in which teenagers at New York City’s Rikers Island jail are held, according to an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting. And although this awkward exchange between Franken and Samuels may have been played for comedy, solitary confinement is no laughing matter, especially for teenagers.

You can watch the “Last Week Tonight” prison segment below. The bit about the size of a solitary confinement cell starts around the 5-minute mark.

YouTube video

Note: The clip Oliver shows was edited for time and optimal hilarity, but it isn’t far from what actually went down.

For more on prisons, check out CIR’s extensive coverage.

Contact Chan at jchan@cironline.org and follow her on Twitter: @juliachanb.

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Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.