The third-longest government shutdown on record entered its 18th day on Tuesday. News coverage showing the havoc it has wreaked on federal employees, whose pay is being held hostage to President Trump’s demands for billions of dollars in border-wall funding, has proliferated. Few such stories have expressed greater moral indignation than those concerning the plight of corrections officers and prison workers. “Hard to digest,” reads a characteristic NBC News headline: “Inmates eat holiday steak during shutdown while prison workers go unpaid.”
The article — and others like it — features descriptions of prison meals that, in a campaign year, would almost certainly be used to vivify Trump’s mythos of coddled criminals and underappreciated law-enforcement officers. “[Disgruntled] staffers forced to work without pay” reportedly faced laughter from inmates in Coleman, Florida, over the holidays, who enjoyed “grilled steak, garlic macaroni biscuits, and assorted holiday pies” for lunch on New Year’s. Detainees in Brooklyn feasted on Cornish hen and Boston creme pie. Federal inmates in Minnesota ate “heaping plates” of chicken wings. “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,” Joe Rojas, a union president at the Florida facility, told NBC News.
It is absurd to begrudge prisoners one such meal considering said indulgence is totally unrelated to the shutdown, which is Trump’s doing. But more than depicting incarcerated people as entitled bon vivants, such stories perpetuate the notion that they are treated too well in general. Even as criminal-justice-reform legislation makes headlines, a plurality of Americans still believes that conditions inside prisons are not harsh enough. If a government shutdown prompts a pay freeze for corrections officers, the assumption follows, the quality of life for prisoners should get worse, not better.
The story is being framed as an unjust and retributive role reversal. But prison, it is worth clarifying, is a nightmare for most prisoners. Far from the gourmand’s paradise suggested by the likes of NBC News and USA Today, it is a place where overcrowding runs rampant, the rate of foodborne illness is more than six times that of the general population, and punishment for misbehaving inmates is often doled out in the form of Nutraloaf, a brick-shaped mass of assorted cafeteria foods blended into a hideous mélange that only the free population’s most desperate would consider edible. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons has denied ever serving its inmates “the loaf,” as it is known.)
In reality, it is hard to imagine less desirable circumstances than those already facing America’s prisoners. Whatever your feelings about the salience of incarceration as rehabilitation or crime deterrent — it is, in fact, neither — it remains that the experience itself amounts to confinement in a six-by-eight-foot fishbowl, almost completely isolated from anyone or anything you care about, and denied even the most mundane experiences that form the basis of a dignified life — including being able defecate or bathe in private. Some would argue that heinous criminals deserve such treatment; federal prisons, in any case, are overwhelmingly populated by drug offenders, not ax murderers.
The American public may be starting to realize the idea that our prison system is insufficiently punitive is a myth. The changing political landscape is why the First Step Act — a moderate reform bill that, nevertheless, marked the most significant changes to federal law enforcement in decades — was able to pass through Congress in December. It is why reform-minded prosecutors in Illinois, Florida, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, have won elections over their “tough on crime” predecessors of late. All followed years of failures but were made possible by a growing national understanding that America puts too many people behind bars, especially black people. “[The] African American community got more insistent in its claims [of mistreatment], and the Republicans got more reasonable in their own critique and set of concerns about criminal justice,” activist and former Obama adviser Van Jones told the Guardian of this discursive shift. Today, 71 percent of Americans say it is important to reduce the country’s prison population, according to an ACLU poll. The same percentage says incarceration can actually be counterproductive to public safety. But Americans stop short of viewing conditions within those prisons as equally unconscionable. According to research by Kevin H. Wozniak, an associate sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, only 11.9 percent of Americans feel prison conditions are too harsh. Almost half, at 46.6 percent, feel they are not harsh enough, while 41.6 percent feel they are neither too harsh or too lenient.
That media outlets tend to treat any sign of humane conditions in prisons as a scandal only muddles public understanding of this issue. Recent stories at NBC News, USA Today, and the Washington Post about the shutdown are augmented by pieces like this one at Forbes, which challenges readers to guess whether a given photo depicts a college, a country club, or a correctional facility. ABC News has written about death-row inmates who troll officials with boasts about how luxurious their lives are behind bars. These articles play up the notion that comfort betrays the social compact between Americans and prison officials — that correctional facilities should be sites of degradation in addition to confinement. To let this broadly felt appetite for cruelty dictate the terms of the conversation leaves little hope that it will change soon regardless. But as long as media outlets make room for this kind of coverage, misconceptions will persist that the main problem with prison is steak and pie during the holidays, rather than prison itself.