Shifting how journalists talk about people in prison

In early January, USA Today had a scoop. Prisoners at a facility in Florida, it seemed, had received extra-special meals on Christmas and New Year’s Day: meat, mac and cheese, potatoes, rice, and pie. Meanwhile, the federal workers serving the meals were feeling the strain of the government shutdown. “Federal inmates feast on Cornish hens, steak as prison guards labor without pay,” read the headline. “This is appalling,” one guard told USA Today. “We’re not getting paid, and the inmates are eating steak. … They’re laughing at us.”

Joshua Hoe, a criminal justice reform advocate and host of the Decarceration Nation podcast, was at a Starbucks near his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan when a link to the article came across his Twitter feed. His first reaction was confusion: “This makes less than zero sense,” he thought. Then Hoe started reading. And then he got mad.

By its very premise, the article suggested to Hoe less that the shutdown is hurting federal workers and more that prisoners simply did not deserve these meals. Save for a few quotes at the end from prisoners—“that dam steak got me full”—which were taken from the prison’s email system and, in his view, very offensively framed, Hoe saw no attempt to factor in prisoners’ perspectives. Nor did he see any input from criminal justice experts, which he says might have balanced out the guards’ complaints. Never mind the factual inaccuracies, such as that federal workers would not miss paychecks until January 11, weeks after the meals, or that the food almost certainly was ordered and frozen well before the shutdown began.

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“There was no reason for it,” Hoe, who is formerly incarcerated, says. “If you had stopped the meals, it would have had no impact on the shutdown. They’re just making punching bags out of the prisoners.” In the following days, Hoe saw similar pieces run in other outlets about prisons in other states, including The Washington Post and NBC News, featuring some of the same sources and similarly cartoonish imagery. “‘I been eatin like a boss,’” the Post’s headline began, quoting from a prisoner’s email. NBC News went with “Hard to digest” and depicted prisoners “munch[ing] on heaping plates of chicken wings.” (The meals, it said, were a “delicious irony.”)

Hoe wrote letters to the publications, complaining about the pieces. “This story seemed designed as clickbait,” the letters read, in part, proceeding to take outlets to task for their “mean-spirited” coverage and demanding printed apologies. More than 60 people signed on to the letters, including prominent activists like Weldon Angelos, whose case helped propel the recent First Step Act to success; Alice Marie Johnson, whose sentence was commuted at the behest of Kim Kardashian; and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black. So far, no publication has responded to the letters.

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Prisons are often “dangerous and inhumane spaces of abuse and degradation,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at NYU, says. Yet a great deal of mainstream media prison reporting, in his view, is “misleading and dehumanizing” and “presented with no context or insight.” At a time when the flaws in our criminal justice system are well-known and well-documented, experts and advocates say a shift in how the media covers prison and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue.

It’s bad enough when the story in question is about food (which in prison is hardly known for its quality, Stevenson notes). It’s worse, though, when it comes to more grave matters, such as murder, suicide, and abuse, which are unfortunately common in prisons. Then, Stevenson says the impact of language is all the more damaging. “Instead of reporting in a way that exposes the tragedy of prison violence, we get headlines like, ‘Convicted rapist stabbed to death,’” he explains. “The media presents the victim as if he could only be the crime he was convicted of. It happens all the time, over and over again.”

Last spring, for example, a Newsweek article asked, “Who were the South Carolina inmates killed in deadliest U.S. prison riot in 25 years?” By way of answer, the story offered only the men’s names, sentences, and crimes. “Cornelius McClary, 33, was serving 25 years for first-degree burglary and battery, firearms provision and criminal conspiracy in Williamsburg County in 2011,” read one mini-obituary. When a person is reduced to their crime at the outset, advocates say, it’s no surprise when challenges to their worth and dignity follow.

In another piece from the Post, published three days after the newspaper’s holiday meals iteration, a reporter wrote that in contrast to prison workers, who are strained by the shutdown, “few things have changed for prisoners, who continue to receive food and medical care out of a fund that already been appropriated for the year by Congress.” At worst, the implication is that this constitutes a misappropriation of tax dollars. At best, it’s that, were it not for said fund, prisoners’ food and medical might reasonably be on the table to be withdrawn. The Post did not respond to an emailed request for comment from CJR, nor did NBC News.

Kevin Johnson, who authored the USA Today article, disagrees that it misled or was an unnecessary  swipe at prisoners. “I don’t think anybody begrudges that prisoners should be fed and, on holidays, fed well,” Johnson says. “Our story merely underscores the irony at play during this shutdown.” He urges critics to consider the piece in the context of USA Today’s broader coverage of the criminal justice system, which has included examinations of the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners, the plight of aging prisoners, and the ugly legacy of “three-strikes” laws. “I don’t apologize at all for the coverage we’ve done,” Johnson says. “I think we’ve been extremely fair.”

Alex Gudich, deputy director of the criminal justice reform group #cut50, gives the media some credit for tracking and exposing the failures of today’s criminal justice system, as well for helping champion reform, in the case of some outlets. Even well-meaning stories can fall short, however, he says, by leaning on stereotypes and failing to count the perspectives of those who are incarcerated or who have been impacted by incarceration.

 Among fixes for journalists, Gudich and his colleagues at #cut50—which was founded in 2014 with the goal of reducing America’s prison population by half within ten years—recommend starting with person-centered language. That is, “people in prison” or “incarcerated persons,” as opposed to “convicts” or “inmates.” This is an ongoing culture shift that began in the criminal justice reform community several years ago but that hasn’t yet caught on in media, Gudich says. He likens the change to journalists’ move away from descriptors like “illegal alien” and “illegals” in immigration reporting.

But it’s not just a matter of semantics. “One of the reasons prison and criminal justice reform have been so difficult to achieve is how we talk about people who are incarcerated in this society,” says Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School. “As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings.” In fact, he adds, the media’s “lurid language” and “vocabulary of outrage” played a significant role in cultivating the attitudes and policies that led to America’s mass-incarceration crisis in the first place. (As for the holiday meal stories, Cobb, who also is a CJR contributor, says they belonged in the Opinion pages, if anywhere: “That wasn’t reportage.”)

Advocates also recommend doing more to incorporate information other than what is provided by prison workers and the police. This presents challenges, they acknowledge, given the famous opacity of prisons and jails, the reticence of defense attorneys to allow clients to speak with the press, and the general busyness of public defenders. But direct access to people who have been accused or convicted isn’t the only way to introduce balance into prison stories: experts on prison conditions abound, as do family members of prisoners. In the wake of the holiday meal stories, Chandra Bozelko, a formerly incarcerated writer and reporter who comments frequently on prison-related issues, received calls from only a handful of small podcasting outfits. “If a tiny little podcast with, like, no staff at all can find me, so can a major newspaper,” Bozelko says. “And if they had found me, or anybody to give another perspective, these stories might have died, because there is no story.”

Bozelko, by her description, is less of a “word hawk” than some advocates. She’s not as offended by the word “felon,” for instance, as she is by factual inaccuracies in stories by reporters who seem to never have stepped foot inside a prison. As for the inaccessibility of American prisons, she proposes an easy solution: hire more reporters with criminal records.

Bozelko points to Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle, who spent time in prison between 2010 and 2012—and whose reporting has recently netted changes to dental care for prisoners in Texas, in addition to the firing or resignation of five prison workers involved in a scheme to plant evidence in prisoners’ cells.

None of this is to say it’s a reporter’s job to swing to prisoners’ defense, Bozelko says. Ultimately, she just wants to see more nuance from mainstream outlets and an acknowledgement of the circumstances, bad luck, and structural factors that often feature heavily into the real stories prisoners have to tell: “Regardless of what a person did, prison wasn’t in their plan, and it’s not who they are.”

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.