Does Media Reporting on Prisons ‘Dehumanize’ Inmates?

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This month, USA Today had a scoop. Federal prisoners in Florida, it seemed, had received extra-special meals on Christmas and New Year’s Day: meat, mac and cheese, potatoes, rice, and pie. 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 said. “We’re not getting paid, and the inmates are eating steak.” Joshua Hoe, a criminal justice reform advocate and host of the Decarceration Nation podcast, complained that the article’s premise was that prisoners did not deserve these meals, says the Columbia Journalism Review.

Hoe, a former inmate himself, said, “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.” Hoe saw similar pieces 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. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative says much mainstream media prison reporting 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, advocates say a shift in how the media covers prison and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue, says the journalism review. When it comes to matters like murder, suicide, and abuse, which are common in prisons, Stevenson says that, “Instead of reporting in a way that exposes the tragedy of prison violence, we get headlines like, ‘Convicted rapist stabbed to death,’ 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.”

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