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How Not to Report on Prison Conditions

The United States, by all metrics, has one of the cruelest prison systems in the world.

In addition to having 25 percent of the world’s prison population (with just 5 percent of the world’s people), U.S. prisons use tortuous solitary confinement, tolerate widespread sexual violence, host massive racial disparities, and routinely abuse children, among other human rights violations.

The idea that the U.S. is “too soft” to people in prison is something even right-wingers rarely bother to argue anymore.

So it may come as a shock that ostensibly mainstream outlets like USA Today, the Washington Postthe Atlanta Journal Constitution, and NBC News thought it newsworthy to report that prisoners at Coleman federal prison in Wildwood, Florida got a routine holiday meal — steak — that was slightly above their normal, bottom-of-the-barrel provisions.

This “outrage” was contrasted with prison guards not receiving paychecks due to President Donald Trump’s “government shutdown.” How dare those hardened criminals live it up, the stories seemed to ask, while correction officers work for free?

Worse were the racist stereotypes about greedy, lazy prisoners — like the Post’s headline, which quoted a prisoner saying “I Been Eatin’ Like a Boss.”

The quote was allegedly taken from a prisoner’s personal mail by a guard and selectively leaked to the Post— which not only published it without any context, but led the whole story with it, African-American vernacular and all.

Is it standard for guards to comb though prisoners’ personal mail to leak to newspapers?

And what images did papers use to convey these luxurious “steak” dinners? Professionally done stock photos of steaks from gourmet restaurants — like a “flat iron topped with hotel butter from St. Anselm Restaurant in Washington” in the Post (price: $24).

If they showed what actual “steak dinners” look like in prison — think Salisbury, not filet mignon — it might accidentally solicit pity towards people in prison.

Numerous studies have shown prison food is barely edible and causes high rates of illness. Lapses in food safety have made U.S. prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population,” The Atlantic reported in 2017. Indeed, one of the primary demands for last fall’s multi-state prison strike was for higher quality and more nutritious food.

It gets worse.

“Adding to the staffers’ bitter feelings,” NBC added, “the working inmates were still drawing government paychecks for their prison jobs, which include painting buildings, cooking meals, and mowing lawns.”

NBC didn’t note that prisoners make slave wages — 23 cents to $1.40 an hour. The guards, prison reform expert John Pfaff notes by contrast, will get full back pay after “the showdown” ends.

For decades, the single uniting theme in white supremacist propaganda has been the idea that African Americans live high off the government hog while “working class” whites struggle to survive. It was the subtext of Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1976 speech accusing a “strapping young buck” of using food stamps to buy T-bone steak.

The narrative being advanced by the Post and others here is simply an updated version of this. By reinforcing caricatures of prisoners living it up while others suffer, these outlets reinforced deeply racialized notions of “welfare.”

My guess is the stories were fed by prison guards. After all, they started coming out less than 48 hours after the release of a federal report that showed rampant abuse and sexual violence in federal prisons — including 524 cases at the very same Coleman prison.

Too many outlets overlooked this story in favor of inflammatory clickbait. Clickbait that’ll soon be forgotten after these guards have gotten their back pay, and the prisoners in question go back to eating barely edible Nutraloaf the other 364 days a year.

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Adam Johnson is a freelance writer and contributing analyst to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

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