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Media outlets should stop shaming prison inmates for eating steak during the government shutdown

The government shutdown is causing a lot of problems. But prison inmates don’t deserve to suffer more as a result.

A federal prison in Illinois. Steve Starr/Corbis via Getty Images

Federal prison inmates got to eat nicer meals than usual over the holidays while the government’s partial shutdown prevented prison workers from getting paid — and prison workers are complaining.

The complaints, reported by NBC News, USA Today, the Washington Post, and others, set up what seems like an unfair situation: Federal prisons gave inmates steak, roast beef, and Cornish hens during Christmas and New Year’s Day — meals that have been traditional for years in an effort to boost morale during the holidays. But the staff serving that food and guarding those inmates had to go without pay thanks to the federal government’s partial shutdown. (They will likely get back pay once the government reopens.)

It’s understandable for prison staff to be frustrated, but the complaints have been framed as if the problem is that the inmates are getting good food — not that the ongoing shutdown is preventing federal workers from getting paid. The Washington Post, for example, focused its headline on an inmate bragging to a pen pal that he’s “been eatin like a boss all week,” and its story quoted a prison official claiming that inmates were “eating like kings and then laughing at us.”

“The framing of this article is so irresponsible and misleading,” Chris Kemmitt, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted. “One of the many ways that incarcerated people suffer is that they are subjected to bad, unhealthy prison food. They do not ‘eat like a boss.’”

As Kemmitt indicated, the meals are rare treats for the holidays, and do little to mitigate the suffering that prison otherwise entails. Federal prison inmates still are without their most basic freedoms and dignity, spending years and even decades in prison, sometimes for nonviolent offenses. (Unlike state prisons that make up the great majority of the US prison population and house mostly violent offenders, nearly half of federal prison inmates were convicted of drug offenses.)

Treating prisoners humanely — including an occasional treat at the holidays — isn’t just the right thing to do, but it can be smart policy too: In other countries, the more compassionate approach is credited for reducing the risk of someone reoffending once he’s released from prison.

The problem, instead, is that guards and other prison staff aren’t being paid because the federal government is partially shut down, as President Donald Trump refuses to sign a spending deal that doesn’t include more than $5 billion for his border wall. It’s an example of the political fight over immigration — and the government shutdown it caused — having consequences in largely unrelated places, from trashed national parks to potentially slower tax refunds.

To put it another way: Federal workers should be paid for their work, and it’s horrible that they’re not due to a political dispute. But giving inmates good food a couple times a year isn’t the cause of that, and the goal shouldn’t be to make others suffer more just because federal workers are.