Are people in prison still people? The Washington Post, NBC News, and USA Today didn’t think so. All three participated in a publicity campaign by federal prison guards, denouncing the idea that imprisoned people should have gotten holiday meals during the government shutdown—or should “feast on Cornish hens, steak,” as USA Today‘s headline put it. “Hard to digest,” NBC’s headline read. Here was another moment, the Post wrote, “to further enrage apoplectic taxpayers.”
The complaint—that is, the substance and angle of each story—was served up by Joe Rojas, the president of the guards’ union at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida. Rojas, as paraphrased by the Post‘s Cleve R. Wootson Jr., wanted taxpayers to contemplate “an unpaid federal prison employee, working on New Year’s Day, serving a steak supper to convicted murderers, gang members and terrorists.”
The triple-bylined NBC story quoted Rojas saying, “They are getting a lavish meal and we are working the holidays away from our families wondering if we can pay the rent or make it home.”
“This is appalling,” Rojas told USA Today‘s Kevin Johnson.
None of the three outlets paused to ask why the contents of the meal, or the people who were eating it, should have made the notion of working without pay any more appalling than it ordinarily would have been. A prison guard who complains about the hardship of having to associate with convicted criminals is being dishonest or stupid about the basic definition of their job. A reporter who takes that complaint seriously is likewise being stupid about their own job.
Stupid and, in these cases, malicious. Across all three outlets, the stories were premised on complete and unexamined contempt for prisoners. It was supposed to be self-evidently offensive that people in prison would have the chance to eat “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,” as the Post described the menu at Coleman. NBC did a multi-prison roundup:
Inmates at FCI Pekin in Illinois enjoyed a fancy meal of steak and shrimp on Jan. 1. Cornish hen and Boston Creme pie were on the menu at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. And the prisoners at a federal institution in Minnesota munched on heaping plates of chicken wings, according to staffers and documents obtained by NBC News.
It might seem hard to believe anyone would give convicted criminals anything as luxurious as chicken wings as a once-a-year treat, but NBC News had staffers and documents saying so.
And if the surface content of the stories was witless and cruel, the subtext of them was worse. Here were three major news outlets making it clear that for people who are in prison, the basic principles of journalism didn’t apply. They gave an advocacy group for prison guards space to disparage the people in prison, with no rebuttal or comment from the people being disparaged. The only counterargument to the message that prisoners don’t deserve to eat holiday meals came from the Bureau of Prisons, which put out a statement saying that the meals were good for morale and that they had been arranged before the government shutdown began.
It’s surely not easy for reporters to reach imprisoned people for comment on deadline. That’s all the more reason not to do a story about prisoners that does not include any comment from them, especially if the story is being pushed by a group that’s professionally antagonistic to them.
Rather than getting any comment themselves, the Post and USA Today chose to publish quotes from what Rojas said were personal messages sent by inmates, sent along secondhand from prison employees, saying “I been eatin like a boss all week” or “that dam steak got me full.” USA Today went ahead and printed the names of the people whose private communications it was using, while the Post used the “eatin like a boss” quote in its headline, above a photograph of what the caption conceded was “a flat iron topped with hotel butter from St. Anselm Restaurant in Washington.”
At some point today, the Post replaced the restaurant steak with a stock photo of a hand gripping cell bars. But the photo of a fancy meal, falsely illustrating a story about prison steak, had already succeeded at delivering some kind of shock value—the shock of seeing an institution unmask itself. The image had no factual connection to the story, only a symbolic one: whatever the prisoners were really eating, the Post didn’t care, any more than USA Today cared about publishing ordinary people’s names and private messages without their consent. Like a holiday meal, respect and accuracy weren’t worth wasting on people behind bars.