Cable news coverage of a national prison strike was pathetic
For weeks, the major networks almost completely ignored inmates' stories and demands
Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT
Inmates across 17 states went on strike beginning August 21, protesting abysmal prison conditions, the revocation of inmates’ rights, and exploitative labor requirements, among other issues. Inmates have few outlets to address grievances or abuses, so it’s particularly important that media organizations dedicate time to explaining strikes and the circumstances that motivate them. Unfortunately, cable news failed to offer the latest prison strike -- reportedly one of the largest in American history -- anything close to appropriate coverage.
A Media Matters study found that cable news covered the strike for just ten and a half minutes in total. MSNBC covered the strike for less than eight minutes from August 21 through September 9, while Fox’s coverage didn’t even make it to three. CNN failed to mention the strike even once during that period.
Fox’s coverage of the strike was limited to one edition of Fox & Friends First, and it was framed entirely around Donald Trump’s supposed support for prison reform. Co-host Jillian Mele noted that inmates were striking and then immediately said, “The president has been pushing for prison reform, and the issue has received support from both parties. So can the president get a bipartisan win?” One of the chyrons that appeared during the segment read: “Trump has pushed for prison reform.” The Department of Justice, in fact, has supported (and rewarded) the use of private prisons -- institutions that profit off of incarceration and lack almost any accountability. Under Trump, the DOJ has additionally attempted to institute harsher federal policies on marijuana in states where it is legal to use and produce and has rescinded guidances on avoiding unfair mandatory minimum sentences and not jailing poor people simply because they cannot afford court-related fees. Trump himself has suggested that drug dealers receive the death penalty, encouraged police officers to injure suspects, and refused to sign on to a Republican-crafted prison reform bill.
MSNBC’s coverage -- which consisted almost entirely of a single segment on PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton -- featured Darren Mack, a former inmate and prison reform advocate. This segment discussed the strike leaders’ major demands, the poor treatment of inmates, and the racist origins and practices of the U.S. criminal justice system. MSNBC’s only other coverage of the strike was a passing mention on All In with Chris Hayes.
None of the networks quoted current inmates or the leaders of the movement, whose voices are pivotal to understanding the strike and the greater reality of inmates’ lives.
The underreported strike came two years after the largest prison strike in American history (another event that went unnoticed by mainstream outlets), and it encouraged inmates across the country to participate in work stoppages and other means of peaceful protest. This latest action was partly inspired by a brutal prison riot in South Carolina that left seven inmates dead and more than a dozen injured. Corrections officials blamed the violence at Lee Correctional Institution on a dispute over “money” and “territory,” but in an op-ed for The New York Times, historian Heather Ann Thompson reported that inmates told her corrections officials provoked the violence by housing rival gang members together. Thompson also reported that “officials’ increasingly punitive policies … exacerbated tensions on the inside.” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the strikers, told Vox that inmates at the Lee Correctional Institution “were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.” When the riot began, corrections officials failed to break it up, leading to the deaths of seven men.
The violence at Lee Correctional Institution is far from an anomaly in the prison system of the United State -- the most incarcerated country in the world -- and prison activists listed “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women” as the first of 10 demands for the strike. Other demands included the restoration of inmates’ and former inmates’ voting rights (34 states prohibit people from voting on the basis of prior convictions), better access to rehabilitative programs, an end to the racist targeting of minorities by police and prosecutors, and an “immediate end to prison slavery.”
The term “prison slavery” refers to the exploitative practice of forcing the incarcerated to perform labor for little or no payment. Prison labor is essential to manufacturing numerous products, including blue jeans, car parts, and even military and police equipment. Just last month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bragged that over 2,000 inmates had been called on to help fight the state’s devastating wildfires. They were paid $2.56 a day, plus one extra dollar per hour for dangerous and difficult labor that left at least two inmates dead. Perhaps most cruelly, even though the state has invested time and resources in developing skillful firefighters, almost no inmates are able to seek employment as a firefighter following release due to their felony convictions.
The strike ended on Sunday, Sept. 9 -- the 47th anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Prison activists finished with a final push to restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies. Although the results remain to be seen, the strike’s effectiveness was almost certainly undermined by the paltry coverage inmates received from cable news networks.
Media Matters searched the iQ media video database’s transcript and closed-captioning archive for any instance in which the word “prison” was used within 20 words of “strike” between August 21 and September 9 on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News.