News outlets including NBC News, The Washington Post and USA Today drew criticism for stories that echoed frustrated workers and shamed the incarcerated for being served holiday meals. The articles quoted prison guards who were “bitter” that, as the government shutdown left them working without pay, incarcerated people were allowed to eat a decent meal or celebrate a holiday.

Several lawsuits claim prisoners are underfed and even starved, while prison food itself is of notoriously poor quality.

For Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays, inmates are served a slightly nicer meal like steak or Cornish hen, the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement. The meals highlighted in the media coverage were “planned weeks… in advance of the government shutdown,” it added.

Prison guards are among 420,000 essential federal employees working without knowing when their next paycheck will come and unsure of how to put food on the table. The articles never explain what almost seems too obvious, though: incarcerated people have no say in a government shutdown or when it ends.

USA Today and The Washington Post quoted emails that prisoners wrote to their friends about the meals, raising concern about the journalistic ethics of reporting those monitored emails. They were provided by Joe Rojas, who is a guard at Florida’s Coleman Federal Correctional Complex and the head of the prison union. Last April, inmates there also were banned from receiving written letters or greeting cards as part of a national policy.

In 2017, the Bureau of Prisons reached a settlement over sexual discrimination at Coleman after current and former female guards and nurses said they had experienced years of abuse by male colleagues and inmates. The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where NBC News said that inmates were served Cornish hen on Jan. 1, also has a record of reported abuse. Last August, a female inmate there said she was raped by two guards.

Rojas has previously said Coleman is considered a prison for people who might be targets in a regular prison—“snitches, for high-profile inmates, and for people that drop out of gangs”—suggesting that meals there might not be representative of the whole.

In September, convicted serial molester and former U.S. Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sent to Coleman. It is also where Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger served part of his sentence. The Metropolitan Detention Center is where rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was transferred after safety concerns at a different prison. It is also where infamous former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli was sent after his bail was revoked for offering money to anyone who grabbed hair from Hillary Clinton’s head during her book tour.



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