All Sizzle, No Steak

USA Today, Clickbait, Prison and Exploitation vs. Activism

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

For folks who like steak, that picture is probably very appetizing. Unfortunately, several prominent media outlets chose to use imagery and an accompanying — poorly researched — story to use people serving time in federal prisons as a scapegoat in the ongoing government shutdown.

This all started with USA Today running a story by reporter Kevin Johnson based around the quotes of an employee of the union representing correctional officers claiming:

“You are seeing prisoners getting steak, roast beef and Cornish hens, and you can’t put that kind of food on the table for your own family, That isn’t right.”

Since the article was originally published, USA Today has heavily edited their original story as events and the extensive public backlash unfolded (instead of admitting their mistakes or apologizing for their story).

For instance, they now concede that:

“The agency acknowledged that inmates were served the special holiday meals, though the spokesperson said the New Year’s Day menu included roast beef — not steak.”

So What’s The Problem? Part One: Exploitation

The entire premise of the original article suggested that it was immoral — during a government shutdown — for people in prison to get to be served a traditional holiday meal.

So, why was this story so problematic?

First, that inmates were eating steak while correctional officers slaved away without pay was factually incorrect (as was just demonstrated in their own retroactive reporting). Here is more evidence for that from a more recent and more responsible article:

Mr Kalmbacher exposed the second problem with USA Today’s reporting, they wrote a story about — and even exposing confidential correspondence from — federal prisoners without quoting any people incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Many of us believe that is deeply unethical to talk about people in prison without interviewing people who are or have been incarcerated in “correctional facilities.”

In addition, no attempt was made to provide context like that:

  • Holiday meals in prison are a once or twice a year occurrence, are rarely that incredible, and prison food on the whole is horrible bordering on inedible
  • Correctional Officers at the federal level make a decent living and that they can eat the same food people in prison eat — including holiday meals — anytime they want.
  • Correctional Officers get to leave prison and eat wherever they want 365 days a year while people in prison are limited to only the food provided by the kitchen or through commissary
  • Depriving people incarcerated in prison of their special meal could possibly increase problems for correctional officers as it would create increased tension across facilities
  • Special meals are budgeted for well in advance and have been around in federal facilities at least since the 1980s.
  • The holidays are a particularly hard time for people in prison.

Also, prisoners have no control over what they are served. It makes zero sense to blame prisoners for what meals they eat.

One other small problem, holiday meals happened WELL IN ADVANCE of the date when federal employees stopped getting paid (the first dead paychecks were sent three days ago).

Finally, this story painted the people in federal prisons as the villains when depriving them of holiday meals would not shorten, in any way, the shutdown or help one correctional officer make it through the shutdown in a better position.

In short, the story made props of a community that could not, or who were not allowed to speak for themselves.

So What’s The Problem: Part 2 Virality

Not only did USA Today write an inaccurate and immoral article, they also spawned a bunch of imitators:

“Federal prison guards fume as they work without pay while inmates get special holiday meals” NY Daily News

“Hard to digest: Inmates eat holiday steak during shutdown while prison workers go unpaid” NBC News

“‘I been eatin like a boss’: Federal prisoners served steak by unpaid guards during shutdown” Washington Post

“Inmates eat steak while federal prison guards go unpaid” Atlanta Journal and Constitution

Hopefully the headlines alone are enough to explain the deeply problematic nature of these stories (made even more troubling by the fact that — for instance — the authors of the NBC News report were investigative reporters and an Emmy-winning reporter who appeared to do no research at all).

There have been dozens of spinoff stories as this terrible narrative became clickbait across all of cyberspace.

The Response: Part 1 Impacted Voices Speak

Almost immediately after the USA Today article was posted, formerly incarcerated people, activists, and organization who work with people in prison started to rise up in opposition.

Within three days, I organized a group of 80 prominent voices in criminal justice reform united around several points:

  1. That if journalists are going to do stories about people currently incarcerated in prisons you should interview people in prisons or at the very least people who were formerly incarcerated.
  2. That people in prison should ALWAYS be treated with dignity in journalistic depictions
  3. That ALL of the outlets that printed this story should admit their errors and publicly apologize

We wrote the following short response letter (a different version was sent to each offending press outlet):

To the Editor:

As a group of formerly incarcerated and criminal justice reform leaders, we write to condemn the January 6, 2019 article “Government shutdown: Federal inmates feast on Cornish hens, steak as prison guards labor without pay.”

People in prison have nothing to do with the federal shutdown. It’s not like a Dickensian meal of gruel for inmates on Christmas would have opened the government. Ironically for an article on modern corrections, the article does nothing to achieve accountability for the responsible parties and instead demonizes people in prison for a management issue that never solicits their input.

The mean-spirited and at points racist, nature of both the article and the quotes illuminate what is wrong with the correctional system. If it were truly correctional, people inside would be treated with human dignity and the contents of this meal — likely planned in October — would not be a contentious issue (in addition, the history of the holiday meal goes back at least to the 1980’s).

Coincidentally, many prisons schedule a skeleton crew on these holidays, which maximizes the number of officers enjoying the holidays at home. Considerable overtime pay is the punishment for those officers needed to fill a holiday shift. And, many prisoners are left to eat their “special” meal in close proximity to their toilet since a skeleton crew is not big enough to let prisoners join one another for a holiday meal in the prison chow hall or dining room.

Author Kevin Johnson does not report having interviewed any formerly people like us as experts on the topic of food and holidays in prison and that, along with the malice of his piece, is problematic. USA Today needs to uphold the highest standards of journalism when reporting on people who are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. What USA Today reported is not the entire story.”

Attached below is the list of people opposing the articles. NOT ONE of these outlets posted our response and to date NONE of them have met our conditions.

So we continued to agitate, reaching out to many people in press outlets that we had relationships with.

The Response: Part 2 Pushback From The Press

Our efforts to create pushback — and our social media campaigns — bore a lot of fruit. Over the last few days a large number of articles criticizing the “steak in prison” narrative were released.

These four were particularly meaningful to us:

“Those Stories About Federal Inmates Eating Steak Were Just Red Meat for Conservatives” Mother Jones

Was important because it mentioned our activism, our list, and even quoted me.

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

Was important because in addition to pushing back against the media narrative, it also quoted formerly incarcerated activist James Kilgore.

“Former Inmates Push Back Against Dehumanizing and Debunked ‘Prison Steak’ Story” Law and Crime

Was important because it quoted our letter, many of my press quotes, and mentioned all of the problems with the narrative.

“I’m in Prison During the Shutdown. I Didn’t Get ‘Holiday Steak’.” The Marshall Project

Was important because it was FROM a current Federal Inmate (see, it is possible).

Since then a few more good articles and podcasts have come out, there is this podcast featuring Amy Povah of CAN-DO.

Finally, this new article from the Columbia Journalism Review I contributed to just came out.

There were a number of other critical pieces. On the good side, they responded to the fake media narratives. On the bad side, they did not quote any incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks.

Here are some of those articles:

“Media outlets should stop shaming prison inmates for eating steak during the government shutdown” VOX

“Prison Meals Have Nothing to Do with the Government Shutdown” GQ

“The Problem With Prison Isn’t Steak and Pie on Holidays” NY Magazine

“WaPo, USA Today, NBC Go Full Breitbart on ‘Prisoners Eating Steak’ Non-Story” FAIR

“What the Government Shutdown Really Means for Federal Prisoners” ACLU (written by Daniel McGowan who is formerly Incarcerated)

“Stop Lapping Up Fake News about People in Prison” Creator (written by Chandra Bozelko who is formerly incarcerated)

The Lesson: Journalists Should Learn to Treat Incarcerated Folks With Respect

Okay, this has been a much longer recap than I intended but there are some lessons I hope that journalists will take from this:

First, it is not true that it is impossible to interview people inside prisons. There are many ways to conduct interviews (official and unofficial) with folks inside. Here is a good overview from my friends at the Beyond Prison podcast:

Second, there are ways to treat people and ways not to treat people. When you start on the crime beat or if you want to learn more about how to handle reporting in prison, here is a good guide from the good folks at AFSC Arizona:

Finally, even if you can’t talk to folks inside, there are plenty of folks OUTSIDE who work on these issues every day. Here is the list of people who opposed the USA Today narrative (it’s a LONG list) — it is easy to ask us when you are writing stories:

This list has continued to grow since I took these screenshots, apologies to anyone who was not added on this version.

It is my hope that this will be helpful to people interested in writing stories about people in prison. I also want to thank three people who were particularly important in mobilizing our response:

Kathy Morse

Amy Povah

Chandra Bozelko

Josh is the host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.