Government Shutdown

Prison Guards Orchestrate Media Campaign To Complain About Inmates Getting Edible Food for Christmas

Federal shutdown politics leads to really bad journalism about exactly two meals.


Prison food
Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Did you hear about the prison inmate who ate a steak that one time? It's all over the news right now.

In order to express their unhappiness with the federal shutdown, representatives of federal prison employee unions have decided to act as though any tiny morsel of mercy granted to inmates is an insult to the guards themselves.

By "morsels," we're referring to actual food. Inmates in federal prisons were given special holiday meals of game hens on Christmas and steak on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, the federal government shutdown means more than 16,000 federal prison employees and guards are working without pay until the shutdown ends.

There is no relationship between these two things. The dinners for prisoners were planned months in advance and the spending happened before the shutdown. While the holiday meals sound nice, the food prisoners receive every other day of the year is generally awful and frequently doesn't contain enough nutrients to meet inmates' dietary needs.

But in order to make themselves look like the victims in this government shutdown, union officials shopped around a story to multiple media outlets about criminals being treated like kings while prison guards have to freelance as Uber drivers.

It's a bit amazing (and disappointing) how many outlets ran with this tale in exactly the form union reps likely preferred. Over at USA Today, Kevin Johnson described these meals as a "display of culinary largesse." Cleve Wootson, Jr., at The Washington Post called it an example of the "hypocritical" or "ironic" moments of the federal shutdown. NBC called it a "delicious irony" that unpaid staffers had to feed "fancy" food to the inmates. Characterizing this series of parallel-but-unrelated events as a role reversal suggests that we should be treating prisoners poorly. The reporters can take solace in knowing that, generally, we do.

NBC's "reporting," which required the efforts of three journalists, is particularly gross. They have guards and union representatives describing it as "despicable" that inmates received a holiday reprieve. NBC also describes these letters and complaints as having been mysteriously "obtained," despite the fact that Joe Rojas, a union leader at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, is quoted in all of these stories. This suggests that the angle was shopped to reporters like a normal PR pitch. If that's the case, NBC looks pretty unscrupulous for trying to pass it off as investigative reporting. Rojas even shared private emails from two prisoners talking about the meal; the emails were "obtained" by prison staff who screened the emails. (The Washington Post identified Rojas as the source of the emails; USA Today did not.)

Over at USA Today, Johnson pulls that trick where he reports the starting salary of a prison guard in some positions ($38,000 a year) rather than their average salary (around $50,000, with up to $25,000 a year in additional bonuses) to make it appear that prison guards are poorer than they actually are. We see similar techniques when people talk about low pay for teachers.

Prison staffers are also on record complaining that inmates are still getting paid for their prison work; things like painting buildings and mowing lawns. But as incarceration expert, author, and professor John Pfaff observed on Twitter, these inmates typically make pennies per hour. And unlike Rojas, these inmates cannot find better working conditions elsewhere.

BuzzFeed reporter Albert Samaha points out that these stories treat everybody at these prisons and jails as convicted criminals, but in fact, many of them there are still awaiting trial.

Pfaff further worries on Twitter that the lack of context here makes it look like federal inmates are spoiled, and that this could be used to justify creating an even worse environment for federal prisoners:

For those prison guards raging over the government shutdown (even though they'll likely be paid in full once it ends), it might help to know that 2018 was a big year for job growth. Unlike the inmates you abhor, you have alternatives. If you don't like having your paycheck contingent on political fights, do something else.