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.

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  1. This reminds me of the admonishment to clean your plate because there are starving children in China. While it sounds relevant, it’s a complete non sequitur.

    The prisoner meals have no bearing on the guards’ pay.

    1. “The prisoner meals have no bearing on the guards’ pay.”

      And the guards will get back pay, probably with interest once the “shutdown” is over.

      1. Exactly… Nothing to do with each other!

      2. Of course. As top-tier parasites, they can always feed at the public trough.

        BTW, has anyone been able to verify a rumor I heard the other day: that scientists have found a life form even lower than prison guards? It seems unlikely, but stranger things have been discovered in recent years.

  2. Reason is as bad as reading last week’s newspaper. It’s called “news” not “olds”. Write and publish your unoriginal takes while it’s still fresh.

    1. If Reason’s reporting is so awful, then why are you still here? Go troll somewhere else.

      1. It’s a whole theater full of Statlers and Waldorfs.

  3. This will push voters to demand even worse conditions, which will make prisons less safe, and more lethal.

    I would put money on there being a set of people who want this.

  4. Very true… The meals have nothing to do with the strike, and it’s just bitterness they’re whining about it. whatever crimes they did, the government shutdown wasn’t one of them!

    1. “Strike”?

      What nonsense is this?

  5. low pay for teaches.

    Looks like we can see who learned from those low paid “teaches”.

  6. I was going to post this on Facebook, since I got taken in by the article in the Detroit Free Press this morning. But then I saw the typos in the article and decided I didn’t want to embarrass myself by citing an illiterate-looking article. Doesn’t Reason have any proofreaders any more?
    when people talk about low pay for teaches.

    1. After the last Reason cocktail party, the proofreaders were sent to a labor camp where they’ll remain until they learn how to make a proper Manhattan.

      1. Start by repealing all land-use regulations.

  7. The prison administration and the guards should be required to eat the same food as the prisoners.

    1. In Pennsylvania, they are. Food is contraband, even for staff. They eat the exact same meals as the prisoners.

  8. In the low-pay-for-teachers category, let’s not ignore the regular cries that our lowest-paid military men and women are destitute. The math only works when you ignore the housing allowance, subsistence allowance, free medical and dental, etc.

  9. Yeah. When California started the whole “3 strikes and you’re out” thing decades ago, the prison guard union was the biggest backer.
    People who lobby for condemning even more of their fellow citizens to prison, for longer and longer times, simply to increase said people’s pay and job security, are about the shittiest people on the planet.

    1. Yep … it’s even worse than the high school teachers insisting that everyone needs to go to college.

  10. The prison guards are not any better than the inmates. Ever.

  11. I’m imagining most guards are law and order types that think most current crimes on the books are justified, judging anecdotally from prison guards I’ve met. If they really want to save the country money, how about we stop imprisoning everyone for nonviolent crimes. Then we would need less prison guards as well. Oh wait a minute…

    1. Exactly, parasites have a need, a need to feed. (Hat tip to Maverick!).

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  13. Maybe all federal prisoners can be furloughed during the current political impasse, put them on the honor system to turn themselves in once a budget has been agreed to.

    I’m surprised Obama didn’t think of that one when he was closing national parks, etc.

  14. It’s noteworthy which newspapers went form supporting Black Lives Matter to support prison guards once prison guards had a reason to complain about a Republican president.

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