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Let them eat steak: The disgraceful press coverage of holiday meals in federal prisons


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Let them eat steak: The disgraceful press coverage of holiday meals in federal prisons

  • 24 prisoners have died on Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard’s watch

  • Cyntoia Brown gets clemency, will be freed

  • New York’s new marijuana policy brings arrests way down, but racial disparities are soaring

  • Incoming Missouri attorney general, a Republican, seeks to end ‘modern-day debtors’ prisons’

In the Spotlight

Let them eat steak: The disgraceful press coverage of holiday meals in federal prisons

This week, a rather surprising aspect of the partial government shutdown has attracted media attention: While thousands of federal prison guards were working without pay, incarcerated people at certain facilities were given a special holiday meal. These two facts are completely unrelated to one another, and pairing them is not only misleading, it feeds a mean-spirited, zero-sum attitude that we have come to expect from certain outlets like Fox News, the New York Post, and Breitbart (which had a “black crime” story tag). But these stories were published by USA Today, NBC News, and the Washington Post.

All the stories rely primarily on Joe Rojas as a source. Rojas is a union leader and a guard at Florida’s Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. Cleve Wootson Jr. of the Washington Post writes that Rojas served “a steak supper to convicted murderers, gang members and terrorists” on New Year’s Day during the shutdown. Wootson, like the reporters at NBC and USA Today, repeats the descriptions of a special New Year’s meal served at Coleman: “grilled steak, steamed rice with gravy, black-eyed peas, green beans, macaroni and cheese, a choice of garlic biscuits or whole wheat bread and an assortment of holiday pies.” The articles acknowledged that the meals were planned “long before the shutdown began” but this fact did not stop any of them from publishing the piece. [Kevin Johnson / USA Today, Andrew Blankstein, Tammy Leitner and Rich Schapiro / NBC News, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. / Washington Post]

Professor and author John Pfaff wrote on Twitter: “props to whoever does media outreach for the Fed CO union. They managed to get this story to run all over the place. But, he asks, why does every article quote the unions and their reps extensively, interview exactly ZERO ppl for balance?”

“NBC’s ‘reporting,’ which required the efforts of three journalists, is particularly gross,” writes Scott Shackford for Reason. “They have guards and union representatives describing it as ‘despicable’ that inmates received a holiday reprieve.” [Scott Shackford / Reason]

Rojas also supplied these news outlets with private correspondence intercepted from incarcerated people to their loved ones. “Ima end up fat i been eatin like a boss all week i just had steak, pie, chicken, potatoes, salad mac nd cheese rice all type of (things),” one wrote. Despite the fact that this innocuous statement only showed that the holiday meal had its intended effect––promoting morale during the holidays, when it is especially painful to be separated from family––the Washington Post chose to not only print this person’s words but also to disclose his name and age, with no indication that he had given consent or was given the chance to provide comment or clarification. [Cleve R. Wootson Jr. / Washington Post]

Reactions were swift, and harsh––one outlet called it the “worst thing we read yesterday.” In Reason, Shackford wrote that “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,” pointing out that although “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.” Shackford adds, “It’s a bit amazing (and disappointing) how many outlets ran with this tale in exactly the form union reps likely preferred. … Characterizing this series of parallel-but-unrelated events as a role reversal suggests that we should be treating prisoners poorly.” [Scott Shackford / Reason]

On Twitter, author and activist James Kilgore wrote that he is “tired of people telling us how ‘dangerous’ working in a prison is. Perpetuating myth of us ‘criminals’ as animals.” He adds that roofing and taxi driving are ranked as more dangerous than being a corrections officer, which is not among the top 25 most dangerous jobs.

As if to prove these critics right, the Washington Post quotes the union leader at length as he dehumanizes the people he was hired to care for: “These inmates are not here for singing too loud at a church,” Rojas said. “These are dangerous felons. We’re working with killers. We’re working with terrorists. All these guys do is think and hatch plans and figure out how to get weapons. It’s like a molotov cocktail waiting to explode.” The Post did, however, change the photograph accompanying the article from one of a restaurant steak—a flatiron topped with “hotel butter”—with no relation to the contents of the article, to one of a hand gripping cell bars.

These articles imply that staff salaries and government shutdowns fluctuate based on prisoner meals. This isn’t true. In those states where sheriffs can pocket leftover cash from meal funds, prisoners go hungry, and sheriffs buy lavish beach homes.  USA Today’s article launches into a litany of officer complaints about pay. The coverage also seems to blame prisoners for the government shutdown, which was not caused by prisoners, has nothing to do with their menu, and was instead caused by President Trump to secure funding for his southern border wall.

Even more troubling, by adopting Rojas’s narrative unquestioningly, these outlets have bought into and perpetuated a zero-sum view of social justice that is not just false, it is pernicious. The idea that more for prisoners means less for guards is dangerous, mean-spirited, and incorrect. It is the same mentality that drives outlets to print pieces lamenting any costs associated with immigration, including the costs of providing healthcare to families who enter the country without documentation. These articles travel get more clicks than those that point out the billions that undocumented immigrants pay in taxes each year.

The zero-sum mentality will most likely infect the speech President Trump is expected to give tonight, during which he plans to justify the government shutdown by laying out a case for why a border wall is necessary. His slogan and policy, “America First,” means exactly that: More for you is less for me. Corrections officer Rojas sounds downright Trumpian when he tells the Washington Post, without evidence, that the incarcerated people were “eating like kings and then laughing at us.” 

These articles stand in contrast to a piece published in the New York Times that also focuses on federal corrections officers in Florida––in this case, a group that is not only going without pay because of the shutdown, but is forced to work 400 miles away because their facility was damaged by Hurricane Michael. Instead of making a misleading connection to a holiday meal for incarcerated people, the Times asks how these officers are squaring their plight with their support for President Trump, placing the blame on a far more appropriate party. This leads to some oddly honest comments, including this, from a 38-year-old prison secretary: “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said of Mr. Trump. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” [Patricia Mazzei / New York Times]

Stories From The Appeal

 

Sheriff Timothy Howard oversees the jails in Erie County, New York, where 24 people have died since 2005.
[Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo via Sheriff Tim Howard]

24 Prisoners Have Died on Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard’s Watch. Reports detail suicides and care for one woman that was “so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience.” [Raina Lipsitz]

Stories From Around the Country

Cyntoia Brown gets clemency, will be freed: After months of pressure, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a woman who, at age 16, was convicted of murdering a man who had paid to have sex with her. Brown says she killed Johnny Allen in self defense, but was given a life sentence of which she has already served 15 years. In his clemency decision, Haslam praised Brown’s rehabilitation: She mentors troubled youth and has completed a college degree while in prison. In a written statement, Brown said, “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” Without clemency, Brown would not have been eligible for release until she had served at least 51 years. She is scheduled to be released in August. [Sergio Martinez-Beltran / NPR] In the wake of this news, some took to Twitter to celebrate the decision and to point out that although Cyntoia’s case received celebrity support and national attention, “There are Cyntoias in every state.”

New York’s new marijuana policy brings arrests way down, but racial disparities are soaring: In New York, the number of marijuana arrests last year plummeted to 7,348 from 17,121, but 89 percent of those arrested were people of color. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration says it needs more time to reduce the racial disparity, but over the summer, de Blasio said, “The highest form of reducing disparity is to reduce the overall number of arrests.” City Council member––and Queens district attorney candidate––Rory Lancman, points out that under the new NYPD marijuana policy, anyone caught smoking in public gets a summons rather than an arrest, but exceptions are made for people with prior contacts with the criminal justice system, including those who were merely arrested. “We’ve created a world where a stunning number of people of color have some criminal justice involvement,” Lancman said. He also blamed discriminatory police tactics that “reach into the lives of brown and Black people as a means of social control and law enforcement strategy.” [Reuven Blau / New York Daily News]

Incoming Missouri attorney general, a Republican, seeks to end ‘modern-day debtors’ prisons’: “In one of his first acts as attorney general, Republican Eric Schmitt on Monday lent his office’s support to a man trying to end the practice of modern-day debtors’ prisons in Missouri,” writes Kurt Erickson of the St. Louis Dispatch. Schmitt filed a brief in the Supreme Court of Missouri “saying counties do not have the authority to classify jail debts as court costs or fines.” Courts “should not be using the threat of jail time to generate funds for bloated big government budgets when other means of collection exist,” Schmitt said. “De facto debtors’ prisons have no place in Missouri, and I am proud to stand up against a system that seeks to treat its poorer citizens as ATMs.” This issue has been highlighted in recent months by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. [Kurt Erickson / St. Louis Dispatch]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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