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The Appeal Podcast: Debunking the Stories About Federal Prisoners Dining on Steak

With Craig Cesal and Amy Ralston Povah

Amy Ralston Povah holding a picture of Craig Cesal outside the White House
Amy Ralston Povah holds a picture of Craig Cesal outside the White House

As the government shutdown drags on, a number of media outlets–from NBC News to USA Today to the Washington Post–have run stories claiming that federal prisoners are eating elaborate steak dinners while prison guards go unpaid. This narrative, while obviously bogus, initially went unchallenged. This week, we are joined by two people who will help debunk it: Craig Cesal, a federal prisoner in Terre Haute, Indiana, currently serving life, and Amy Ralston Povah, a prison reform advocate and formerly incarcerated person.

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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. Over the past few weeks, as the so-called government shutdown drags on a number of media outlets from NBC News to USA Today to The Washington Post have been running scare stories about how people in federal prisons are eating elaborate steak dinners as prison guards go unpaid. This is of course a factually false framing and one that panders to racist glib assumptions about who’s in prison and who guards them. Today we’re joined by two people with firsthand experience of this issue. Amy Ralston Povah, a prison reform advocate and formerly incarcerated person herself.

[Begin Clip]

Amy Ralston Povah: When you’re in prison, we are scapegoated. We’re quite often bullied. I think there needs to be a whole new training regimen for prison guards who feel it’s appropriate to bully some of the least of us with no voice and no access to complain.

[End Clip]

Adam: And Craig Cesal, who is presently serving a life sentence at Terre Haute Federal Prison in Indiana, he’ll be joining us in just a minute by phone.

[Begin Clip]

Craig Cesal: Many of the officers are paid. Like, the ones that I work with at work are not budgeted employees on the Bureau of Prisons because they’re actually paid by Federal Prison Industries. There’s also officers that are paid by the Inmate Trust Fund which is basically money that they make off of inmate phone calls and inmate commissary purchases and the like. All those, since they’re not budgeted money, they’re still getting paid.

[End Clip]

Recording: This call is from a federal prison.

Adam: So thank you so much for coming on.

Craig Cesal: Of course.

Adam: We really appreciate it. So I guess Amy sent you the articles that USA Today and NBC had done about how the government, quote unquote “shutdown” was affecting federal prisons. The narrative has been completely about how it affects the prison guards. They’re more or less just republishing prison guard union press releases. None of them include any voices from actual prisoners themselves. So we’re excited to try to do that here. Did you get a chance to read those articles and any responses to that whole controversy, but namely the thing about people eating steak?

Craig Cesal: Uh, yes, I did read the articles. As a matter of fact, I have it in my hand right now and I just read it with two officers of the Bureau of Prisons who I work with. I just left the prison factory and they actually laughed and disagreed with most of it.

Adam: Uh, what was the general consensus about what it got wrong and what the kind of reality versus what the media is saying?

Craig Cesal: Well, the first thing they pointed out is that most officers start at well over $38,000 a year. Most of them in training are paid $25 an hour, which would start them at roughly $50,000 a year.

Adam: Right.

Craig Cesal: The next thing is, is this was made regarding the Christmas meal and the officers were paid all the way until last Friday. Last Friday is the first paycheck they missed.

Adam: Oh so they-

Craig Cesal: They did get their end of the year paycheck and they, well, which was the end of December as well and the middle of December paychecks. So the first paycheck they missed was due last Friday.

Adam: So they were in fact paid over Christmas.

Craig Cesal: Yes. Yes. They were paid all the way until last Friday. Many of the officers are paid. Like, the ones that I work with at work are not budgeted employees on the Bureau of Prisons because they’re actually paid by Federal Prison Industries. There’s also officers that are paid by the Inmate Trust Fund which is basically money that they make off of inmate phone calls and inmate commissary purchases and the like. All those, since they’re not budgeted money, they’re still getting paid.

Adam: So what do you make of the general narrative that the meals that are served during Christmas are steak? This was, the, you know, The Washington Post had that big picture of a nice delicious five-star steak. Can we talk about, from your experience, what federal prison steak is and more importantly, what it’s not?

Craig Cesal: Well, our two biggest meals of the year, of course, are Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were served about four or five ounces of Turkey, about two tablespoons of dressing, we get some mashed potatoes, we get some gravy and there’s some little, we get a little slice of pie. So I mean there’s, it is a nice meal, it’s much nicer than the meals that we usually get, but there’s not enough to have leftovers put it that way. And the other thing is the officers are served the exact same thing, except that they’re allowed to get as much as they like. Plus they have a full salad bar with the whole accompaniment of things that are on the salad bar that we don’t get that they have their own officer’s mess, they eat fairly well in there at government expense.

Adam: Right. So the steak itself is not like the steak that you and I would understand it.

Craig Cesal: No, this is not a steak even. It’s a four-ounce piece of roast beef, it’s much better than the meals that we usually get. But its-

Adam: Sure, sure.

Craig Cesal: It’s kinda tough and dry. (Laughs.) I mean they just don’t care how they cook it.

Adam: Can we talk about what the meals usually are?

Craig Cesal: Well for instance, for lunch today I had two tablespoons of rice, two tablespoons of kidney beans, a hamburger bun and it’s like a processed chicken patty. That was our whole lunch.

Adam: Right okay. So one of the narratives that’s pervasive in the media is the idea that the shutdown has made prisoners somehow more violent or more like ready to sort of harm the prison guards. From your experience is this in any way sort of based in reality or is this just something that the prison guard unions are telling the media?

Craig Cesal: No. I mean the inmates, we don’t care about the shutdown. It doesn’t make any difference to us and staffers, most of them point out that like they can live, like from last Friday, they can live a few days, even a couple of weeks or more, you know, with their paychecks being late. That they’re not struggling.

Adam: There’s this corollary in there as well that federal prisons themselves are, have the worst of the worst, have the kind of most unique criminals, uh, one even noted that one of the federal prisons had a Somali pirate, which I guess was supposed to be scary. In your experience is that impression true? Are we talking about like hardcore people here?

Craig Cesal: Yes. The Somali pirate was a guy that lives right here. I play softball with him. I mean, everybody is kind of an equal. We had a lot of fun with him. (Laughs.)

Adam: He’s a short guy, right? He’s like 5’ 2”?

Craig Cesal: Yes. A black guy that was a lot of fun and a good softball player,

Adam: That’s Abduwali Muse, otherwise known as the quote unquote “Somali pirate” in scare quotes.

Craig Cesal: The one thing that we do hear from the officers about the shutdown, the only complaint that we do hear from them, what they are angry about is not that their paycheck is late, but what they’re angry about is that many federal employees, even some of the ones at the prison that are considered nonessential, they get to sit at home and not work and they will get paid on the same day as the, uh, uh, federal guards who actually have to work for their money. So the concern is not that they’re not being paid, that they’re not angry about, they’re angry that they actually have to work to get paid. Many of the other federal employees don’t have to work and they’ll still get paid. That’s the only complaint we’ve ever heard.

Adam: So your general impression of the shutdown is that it hasn’t really affected much of the actual prison. What in your opinion is sort of the motivation behind this panic around the shutdown and prison guards being under siege by prisoners?

Craig Cesal: What I see their goal is they’re trying to get a premium added to their pay so that they get paid more for coming to work during the shutdown then the people who, you know, like, like here the motor pool employees of the Bureau Prisons are nonessential workers that are not coming to work, but uh, so the ones that do have to work, the ones that actually watch inmates, they want a premium price so that they are paid more than the people that didn’t have to come to work and that would get the same pay. So I think their goal, especially because, uh, most of the narrative comes from their union, I think their goal is just to get paid more during the shutdown time.

Adam: Yeah. That seems like a reasonable conflict of interest that maybe some of these outlets mentioned. Before we go, I’m going to let you go soon. Is there anything you wanted to sort of say to the general public?

Craig Cesal: The only thing I would mention is, uh, I want to make a push is about half of the federal prisoners, like myself, I, I’m a first time offender. I’m serving a life sentence for conspiring to distribute marijuana. My business in Chicago repaired trucks for a company in Florida which used their trucks to haul marijuana. What we look at is right about half of the federal prisoners are likewise, uh, imprisoned on these drug charges that carry horrendous amounts of time. They generally carry three to four times as much time as violent crimes. Violent crimes typically carry up to 20 years if they’re non-murder violent crimes, whereas marijuana crimes and drug crimes carry up to life and I’m living proof that first time offenders get life even though nobody’s hurt and no money was made by me. So I guess my push is, you know, please look at, you know, federal sentencing and our federal criminal laws. I think there’s something wrong that a drug offender serves life whereas had I’ve been convicted of rape, my sentencing guideline would be 33 months.

Adam: Wow. Okay. Well yeah, that’s a good thing to get across. It’s definitely good to hear from someone who’s actually experienced it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, Craig.

Craig Cesal: Okay, thanks again. You have a great week.

Adam: That was Craig Cesal, who’s currently serving life in prison at Terre Haute Federal Prison in Indiana. Next up will be joined by Amy Ralston Povah, a prison reform advocate and formerly incarcerated person herself. So thank you for coming on Amy.

Amy Ralston Povah: Thank you for having me.

Adam: So we were talking offline about this deluge of stories about greedy prisoners eating steak dinners while prison guards in federal prisons are missing their paychecks. USA Today, NBC News, dozens of local affiliates, um, all these mainstream outlets at the time of recording and pushing this narrative. As someone who spent time in federal prison, as someone who works in this space very carefully, what is wrong with this narrative in your opinion?

Amy Ralston Povah: It was shocking.

Adam: Yeah.

Amy Ralston Povah: To be blunt. And when it appeared on Twitter, several of us rapid responders really started with the rebuttals. And one gentleman in particular, Joshua, decided to write a rebuttal sign-on letter. And I got very busy reaching out to a lot of people, especially formerly incarcerated people now have their own nonprofits and organizations that are in this criminal justice reform space. And when I read it, I was so incensed that they framed it the way they did with the title that prisoners were eating steak while prison guards were going unpaid because first of all, factually that was incorrect.

Adam: Yeah. As it turns out, that is not true. Craig pointed that out earlier.

Amy Ralston Povah: Wasn’t true at all; the prisoners didn’t eat steak almost uniformly. If they did have a decent meal, it was roast beef, which is really nothing to brag about, you know, in the big scheme of things, I got an email from someone who’s serving life for pot, Paul Free, and he received clemency from President Obama, but he’s, he’s still in prison. He, he will get out this year and they didn’t even have that because their kitchen is under repair and it keeps backing up and OSHA had to get involved. They found black mold. This is something that I typically hear from prisoners that I communicate with in the BOP, that black mold is a problem in many institutions, but nobody wants to write about that it doesn’t seem like, and at least at FCI Phoenix, they didn’t even have a holiday meal. I think they’re served on paper plates and probably at best had a sandwich, so the problem was sadly the prison guards and their union boss probably could have received some empathy from the public if they had just kept the story about the shutdown and maybe their hardships, but they did what those of us who’ve been in prison experienced almost daily and sadly it’s normally not done in such a public arena, but when you’re in prison, we are scapegoated. We’re quite often bullied. I think there needs to be a whole new training regimen for prison guards who feel it’s appropriate to bully some of the least of us with no voice and no access to complain. I have no end of stories of things that are going on right now where inappropriate behavior happened. But this was in a public venue where they chose to bash prisoners for a holiday meal and lie about it. So it really cuts into their character.

Adam: Yeah exactly what Craig pointed out is shutdown payments didn’t affect Christmas, it didn’t kick in until after Christmas, way after Christmas. So the whole Christmas steak thing while they’re not getting paid thing was a total fiction. And then there was of course, the complete lack of context, twofold. Number one, a lot of them pointed out that prisoners were still being paid for their labor. This is sometimes as low as twenty three cents. Now this was a sort of great moral outrage. And the second thing was, of course, is that the meals that they usually have, of course are very, very low grade and that this is slightly above that. And of course The Washington Post had a stock photo of a five star restaurant steak. Um, can we talk about that? Can we talk about first off the hourly wages aspect and what working looks like in these prisons and why it’s not necessarily this huge gotcha that prisoners are getting paid during a quote unquote “shutdown”?

Amy Ralston Povah: Frankly, not to go into my own personal story, but I was a first offender who received 24 years because after I was put in the hot seat and told by federal agents that I would either cooperate or was looking at 20 to life and I chose not to cooperate, I went to trial and there’s a whole trial penalty phase that I didn’t know about. I kept wondering, what is it, you know, what’s driving this? Because this was in the early nineties when all of this push, when the drug war was resurrected to put more of a body count into prison. I really never could understand what was the driving force behind this. So when I got to prison, you sit in something called orientation and in orientation they come in and an education department comes in and explains this is how this operates, food service and then you get a law library recreation. You get all these heads of staff who come and explain how you will behave and what’s expected of you. Then came this gentleman who walked in and most of us were going to sleep and he burst out with this big energetic introduction and told us about UNICOR and was so excited and wanted us to consider coming to work at a UNICOR factory and said that it’s openly traded on, its on Dun & Bradstreet, I’ll never forget him saying that, um, traded on Wall Street and I’m sitting there trying to process what this man is talking about, only to have my aha moment when he started saying that we’re going to start you off at twenty three cents an hour and if you work very hard and if you’re a good producer, you can earn up to a little over a dollar an hour, and I seriously in that moment understood what was driving this. And corrections will tell you, the Bureau of Prisons will tell you that maybe this started out a long time ago to provide prisoners with some kind of rehabilitative skills or working skills. Well, guess what? We’re a long way from that original intent. It is slave labor. No, if, ands or buts about it. And we have a cut and sew factory, we have a furniture factory, we have data processing. The women there would type in your patents, but people pay top dollar. So the taxpayer doesn’t get the savings passed onto them. We make a desk. It probably cost us $10 to make that desk. The federal agencies are mandated where they had to pay, they had to buy from UNICOR whether they it or not and our products were inferior and they complained and anyway, it’s just so the taxpayer pays escalated prices. So it’s very profitable for those who invest in UNICOR.

Adam: Right. Yeah. So this was, this was very important media context that was completely left out of the conversation. There was so much to get outraged about these articles. It was sorta hard to keep track. I know that the image of these sort of prisoners living high on the hog while the prison guards were sort of scraping by. Uh, one of the narratives they paint, and I talked to Craig about this and I’m curious to get your thoughts, was the image of the prisoners as these kind of mindlessly violent animals that somehow, somehow them not getting paid, that the prisoners were emboldened by this and the incarcerated people had sort of read the news and knew about the shutdown and were threatening them and menacing them. And of course this is all just an assertion by the union reps. The journalists didn’t even probably leave their desk, right? They didn’t go out and try to find out if any of this was true or camera footage or do any sort of empirical assessment. Um, can we talk about this kind of, this recurring trope that’s used to dehumanize people in prison by painting them as sort of one security foul up away from a full on riot?

Amy Ralston Povah: Right. Well, I think if there was an award show for fake news, this story would get top prize.

Adam: Agreed.

Amy Ralston Povah: Because, number one, the quote that prisoners were, were laughing at them, who fact checks that? And the-

Adam: Well they don’t right? It’s just an assertion.

Amy Ralston Povah: No, not only did they not fact check it, but Kevin Johnson with USA Today and, and all the others that followed suit, much to our horror as we watched one after another, it was a domino effect and it really was horrifying. I would say this, I haven’t been in there nine years. Uh, one year I didn’t even go over to the holiday meal and I’ll tell you why. Here’s an image that none of them cared to share and they didn’t reach out to any of us formerly incarcerated people who are, a lot of us are pretty high profile. My phone number’s right on the website, we’re easy to contact. If they wanted to do just basic one-on-one journalism. I didn’t go because at FCI Dublin, which is near San Francisco, it was raining, it was rainy season, it rains all the time in northern California during the winter and it’s outside. So everything is compartmentalized. So the food service building is a separate building and you have to stand outside in the cold and this particular holiday meal it was raining and it’s about a two-hour wait. So I opted for ramen noodles and just stayed in my cell because I don’t know what person thinks it’s worth it. And I promise you that the title of Cornish game hen may sound, ‘oh my God, that just sounds delicious’ and as if other people don’t have access to that, number one, it’s usually a grade that they can’t, the rejects that they don’t sell to the grocery stores. That’s our take on it because we’ve opened boxes, we’ve seen stuff, there’s a lot of food that’s marked “not for human consumption” I swear to god. And um, so it’s, it’s really nothing to brag about. And the fact that they chose to skew the story so horribly as if we were eating like we eat like that all the time was I think abhorrent.

Adam: Yeah. There’s high stakes here right? These narratives bleed into a larger popular public perception of prisoners as, as living high on the hog and living in country clubs. And this, of course, makes more severe punishment more publicly palatable. So the stakes couldn’t be higher. Can you tell us about the groups that are trying to push back against these narratives and trying to make it clear that these kinds of caricatures are not at all reflective of reality?

Amy Ralston Povah: Well, as somebody who lived through the nineties era in a federal prison that train left the station a long time ago about prisoners living high on the hog and we went through a horrible era. There was something called the Zimmerman proposal where it just seemed like the only thing that this nation had to do was focus on some kind of bogeyman. And back then it was criminals, drug war and I witnessed the constant bashing. And so our Pell grants were taken away from us. They didn’t want us to have access to cable television. Well guess what? They framed that to make it seem as if the taxpayers were paying for that, they weren’t. There’s an Inmate Trust Fund from when we buy items at commissary that are completely escalated that are supposed to then go back into the, in the prisoner population and we’re trying to get away from using the term inmate, so back into the prisoner population and out of that money that we all give back to the institution, be a commissary, that’s how they buy our washers, dryers, what few microwaves we finally had access to, which I heard they’re taking all of those away again. And it became very, very bleak because they took all our programming away from us as well. Volunteers used to come in and teach yoga. Uh, that was, uh, you know, and they weren’t paid. They were just volunteers. That was all taken away from us. So this notion to even imply there’s some kind of, still some kind of club fed environment in a federal prison is so objectionable because where I was, it used to be two people to a room. These were, we didn’t call them cells, we called them rooms because they, it wasn’t built as a prison with bars originally. It was some kind of a boy’s rehab center and so it’s really two is crowded. I think it was originally made for one person then as a women’s facility two women were in the room. You can function that way. They are now putting four people in a very small room that also has a toilet and a sink and there’s just there’s no room. You have to turn sideways to be able to walk in between the beds. You can’t even walk like a normal person between the beds because the beds are so close together. It’s just, it’s torture and people need to realize we have first time offenders serving life without parole, thanks to the mid-eighties, late eighties to nineties when the draconian mandatory minimums came in and sentencing guidelines. We went from a first offender who would normally get probation only on a drug charge, a nonviolent drug charge, to first offenders serving life without parole, including pot. We have people serving life for pot and you’re going to choose to bash those people. These aren’t people that you see on these TV shows called Lock Up and in fact, the feds stopped allowing the media to have access to, uh, bring video and do any kind of video inside the federal system after there was a, a horrible crime that occurred at FCI Dublin where some guards were popping the cell doors in a facility where it’s both pretrial and letting the men have access to them. Amnesty International did a big scathing report on it and not long after that when there should have been more transparency the Bureau of Prisons cracked down and basically started banning any kind of media, even ABC, NBC, CBS, 60 Minutes from coming in with any kind of video cameras.

Adam: Wow. Well, I think that’s probably a good place to end this. This was extremely informative. Thank you for hooking us up with Craig. Thank you for coming on. This was very much appreciated. I think our listeners probably got a whole new perspective of this narrative, so thank you so much.

Amy Ralston Povah: Thank you, anytime.

Adam: Thank you to our guests Amy Ralston Povah and Craig Cesal. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main webpage and Twitter @TheAppealPod and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. This show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer is Sarah Leonard. I’m your host, Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.