Following the recent government shutdown—the longest in U.S. history— thousands of federal employees went weeks without pay. For those struggling to survive paycheck-to-paycheck, the devastating shutdown caused many federal employees to take up second and even third jobs (The Marshall Project, “What Trump’s Government Shutdown Looks Like Inside Federal Prisons,” 01.07.2019).
Understandably, members of the public and news agencies alike pressured public officials to end the shutdown, incited by stories of voluntary service by government workers attempting to continue partial government function. However, major news agencies covering the government shutdown have largely ignored its impact on incarcerated individuals or have vilified them in the rare instances that they were not rendered invisible. Stripped of liberty, humanity and agency, federal prisoners are dependent on a functioning government to receive food, toiletries, health services, rehabilitation and, in some cases, release.
During the shutdown, the few stories covering the function of federal prisons centered around complaints about prisoners’ treatment in relation to unpaid employees. For example, traditionally during the holiday season, prisoners receive more elaborate meals, such as roast beef, chicken and steak. The Bureau of Prisons serve these meals to reduce feelings of resentment and suppress prison strikes. News agencies such as NBC News, USA Today and The Washington Post, however, shifted blame from government officials to prisoners for the above subpar treatment they received. The Washington Post put out a piece entitled “‘I been eatin’ like a boss’: Federal prisoners served steak by unpaid guards during shutdown” (01.07.2019) while USA Today published “Government shutdown: Federal inmates feast on Cornish hens,steak as prison guards labor without pay” (01.04.2019). NBC News published an article entitled, “Hard to Digest: Inmates eat holiday steak during shutdown while prison workers go unpaid,” which described prisoners mocking and aggravating prison guards who had bills to pay and children to feed (01.06.2019). The story quoted Sandy Parr, a food service foreman at Federal Medical Center in Rochester, MN, who lamented, “You’re giving a gift to somebody who committed a crime, but yet you won’t pay the people who are supervising them? It’s frustrating and maddening.”
Personally, I am frightened by these major news organizations’ lack of empathy for federal prisoners, nearly half of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, while merely three percent are imprisoned for homicide, aggravated assault and kidnapping (Federal Bureau of Prisons, “BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses,” 11.24.2018). Although government workers are entitled to complain about a situation which wreaks havoc upon their lives, these articles ignore the daily mistreatment that prisoners must endure while wildly exaggerating the types of positive treatment that prisoners receive.
The articles portrayed the foods as luxurious and high-quality, but Daniel McGowan, a former federal prisoner, asserted that the meal was still subpar by any standard. He described,“Twice a year—usuallyThanksgiving and New Year’s Day — federal prisoners receive ‘special’ meals for the holidays. These meals are rare, highly anticipated,and a touch above the low-quality food prisoners get the rest of the year. While the article used ‘steak’ in the headline for impact…[the meat was] not the corner delicatessen version but a grey, rubbery, low-cost version” (ACLU, “What the Government Shutdown Really Means for Prisoners,” 01.11.2019).
Furthermore, the articles did not mention how the government shutdown has negatively affected detainees. When The Marshall Project, a non-profit journal focusing on criminal justice issues, asked the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) about the treatment of prisoners during the government shutdown, investigators received little information. The BOP stated that only employees charged with “the safety of human life or the protection of property” were allowed to keep working (The Marshall Project, “What the Government Shutdown Looks Like Inside Federal Prisons,” 01.07.2019). This means that the government furloughed employees they consider unnecessary, such as mental health specialists, who are perhaps the most essential employees in a prison.
Prisoners who were fortunate enough to send letters and emails outside the prison walls described how the warden cancelled family visits—a particularly staggering blow during the holiday season (The Marshall Project, “I’m in Prison During the Government Shutdown. I Didn’t Get Holiday ‘Steak,’” 01.17.2019). Seth Piccolo, a prisoner at the Federal Correctional Institution in
Virginia, reported that the phones stopped working and prisoners could not make calls. Another prisoner reported that the prison was forced to stop ordering food and toiletries due to a lack of funds. McGowan asserted, “With budgets frozen, daily life in prison will become even more miserable. Delays in mail being delivered; unstocked commissaries; shuttered gyms; and no classes, visits, transfers, or library access take a toll on peoples’ well-being and the relative peace int he federal prison system. I recall during potential shutdowns in the 2000s that even toilet paper was being parceled out at the rate of one roll per week” (The Marshall Project, “I Didn’t Get Holiday ‘Steak’”).
In addition to material deficiencies, terminally ill inmates waiting for “compassionate release” in order to die peacefully with their families were made to wait longer since no one was available to read their applications (The Marshall Project). This means that these prisoners will most likely die in prison before being reunited with their families. Even more shockingly, prisons also kept detainees past their release dates.
While prisons violate the human rights of prisoners daily, government shutdowns exacerbate such atrocities. Unfortunately, instead of driving the public to think about how our criminal justice system works and exposing the ineffective and destructive nature of incarceration in America, news agencies villainize criminals who are already isolated and stigmatized in American society and politics, and who face the brunt of the shutdown. Instead of adhering to the carceral logics ingrained in American brains and hearts, times like these should challenge Americans to think differently about how we view prisoners and the systems that lead humans to incarceration.