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What the Government Shutdown Really Means for Federal Prisoners

Pay no attention to stories about prisoners feasting during the shutdown. The reality is that the shutdown only makes prison conditions worse

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"Articles that conflate the government shutdown with holiday meals are grossly inappropriate and will only create an even more hostile environment," warns an ACLU paralegal and former inmate. (Photo: Thomas  Hawk/flickr/cc)

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.

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.

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 in the 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.

During the current shutdown, the BOP has furloughed a portion of its staff and is making other staff work without pay, restricting many aspects of prison life even more than usual. My experience in federal prison was that during budget crises or potential shutdowns, all programs perceived as extras or nonessential were canceled or curtailed. And I would argue that much of what the BOP perceives as “extra” is actually essential.

According to The Marshall Project, at some facilities, social visits were canceled during the holiday season due to the lack of staff in the visiting room. Visits are a critical part of prison life. They help prisoners connect to the outside world, build and repair relationships with their families, and aid reentry, all of which contribute to reducing recidivism.

I also worry about the prisoners who are waiting for compassionate release. The program has already been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates for how slow it processes applications, and the shutdown will only make this worse. Despite the fact that elderly and terminally ill prisoners’ lives hang in the balance, the BOP will consider compassionate release “nonessential.” The result: People will die in prison while their applications go unread.

Despite the fact that elderly and terminally ill prisoners’ lives hang in the balance, the BOP will consider compassionate release “nonessential.” The result: People will die in prison while their applications go unread.

Then there’s the mental health aspect to the shutdown. A significant number of people in federal prison also require mental health treatment, which will not happen while the government is shut down. A little-known fact is that all staff at a federal prison can be assigned security details, in my personal experience, and the shutdown will likely increase this. If the psychology staff is required to operate as guards, then there is no staff to run the mental health programs.

Finally, I worry about what it must be like to be in federal prison right now with prison guards and staff upset and angry about the government shutdown. Articles that conflate the government shutdown with holiday meals are grossly inappropriate and will only create an even more hostile environment if guards’ resentment against prisoners grows.

So ignore the stories about prisoners living it up during the shutdown. The reality is that prison conditions have and will only continue to deteriorate as the shutdown deprives the BOP of the resources it needs to be fully staffed. Prisoners will face the worst of the shutdown, a fact the hit pieces ignore. That’s the real story, not prisoners getting a holiday meal that I assure you is just a notch above inedible. 

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Daniel McGowan

Daniel McGowan

Daniel McGowan is a paralegal at the Criminal Law Reform Project, a division of the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

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