Daniel McGowan: What the Government Shutdown Really Means for Federal Prisoners

Last week, USA Today ran a hit piece on federal prisoners with the tabloid headline, “Government shutdown: Federal inmates feast on Cornish hens, steak as prison guards labor without pay.” Not to be outdone, The Washington Post followed this up with their own shameful story under the headline, “‘I been eatin like a boss’: Federal prisoners served steak by unpaid guards during shutdown.” The problem here is twofold. First, the shutdown has nothing to do with the food served to federal prisoners and, second, the food descriptions are wildly exaggerated.

I should know. I was a federal prisoner from 2007 to 2013 and ate thousands of meals during that time. Twice a year — usually Thanksgiving 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, it was a little more accurate in the article, referring to the meal as roast beef. Mind you, this roast beef is not the corner delicatessen version but a grey, rubbery, low-cost version.

As offensive and archaic as these articles were, the worst aspect is they conflate a long-standing holiday meal tradition within the Bureau of Prisons with President Trump’s government shutdown. There is no fairness in blaming federal prisoners for the situation BOP staff find themselves in due to Trump’s shutdown — but it sure makes for good clickbait. Unfortunately, the government shutdown has very real impacts on federal prisoners, which the reporters ignored in their attempt to generate outrage.

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