Let Them Eat Steak: The Disgraceful Press Coverage of Holiday Meals in Federal Prisons

Sarah Lustbader

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.

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.”

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––USA Today 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.

Reactions were swiftand 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.”

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.

Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

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.”

published as part of the Jan. 8 “Daily Appeal” newsletter (subscribe here)