Fact-Checking The Prison Strike: Marshall Project Reveals Bias Against Prisoner-Led Resistance
One of the primary differences between this year’s prison strike for basic human rights and dignity and the one that took place in 2016 is the level of media attention it has attracted.
Far more journalists are paying attention this year, but rather than examine the message of the strike seriously, several outlets—especially those claiming to specialize in these issues—are more concerned with interrogating the messengers. It is as if the prison strike might be a stunt by conniving prisoners and backed by clueless activists—both which want to see their names splashed all over the internet.
A quintessential example of this came from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that was founded by former hedge fund manager Neil Barsky in 2014. The organization prides itself on being a credible and reliable source of information on everything from prisons to police and the courts. According to their website, they “[seek] to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.”
The Marshall Project managed to get out in front of other mainstream reporting on the prison strike, establishing themselves as an expert source for interviews and insights on the action. Reporting fellow, Nicole Lewis, was invited on popular national media platforms to discuss her piece, “What’s Really Happening With The Prison Strike?”
But Lewis’s article is littered with prejudice and innuendo that casts doubt on the legitimacy and trustworthiness of strikers and their outside supporters. It includes the perspectives of activists, but plays into biases against incarcerated people by suggesting they might not be telling the truth about their struggle for human rights.
The article from the Marshall Project appears to be a fact check of the prison strike. “Some outlets simply reported unchecked information put out by the outside strike organizers,” Lewis writes. But the only “unchecked information” Lewis seems to highlight is the number of prisons participating. She also does not really specify which outlets published “unchecked information” (although New York Magazine is highlighted).
Outlets in which organizers were quoted are named without directly accusing the outlets of publishing “unchecked information.” She insinuates that the New York Magazine published a false estimate of the number of participants in the 2016 strike. She goes on to suggest 2018 strike numbers show the strike will not be more “robust” than the previous strike, but there is no way she can possibly know how many prisoners are striking currently
Lewis clearly believes organizers are exaggerating the extent of the strike. Yet, by focusing on this aspect, she ignores the demands and the conditions that fueled the latest round of resistance.
To the degree that participation truly matters, this frame makes little sense. During the 2016 strike, reports about many actions in September not only were not verified but did not make it out of facilities for at least a month. Journalists most likely will not have a firm grasp on how many prisoners or facilities participated or what participation looked like for several months.
That is because prisons are opaque—an issue that should have been addressed immediately but Lewis only addressed vaguely and briefly at the end of her piece.
Reporters cannot show up at facilities, go inside, and interview prisoners. Prisoners cannot simply call or write reporters to tell them what is going on (not that journalists like Lewis would trust them if they did.) Even organizers with connections (let alone journalists who don’t have any) are working through people in isolation over clandestine communication networks that delay the spread of news.
During a press call last week, organizers made clear their estimates for participation were what they “expected.” There is a clear difference between “expected” participation and what is unfolding currently in prisons.
The premise of the article was amplified by Lewis and her editors, who included a subheading that rhetorically asked, “So was the strike simply a PR stunt?”
Given the intense risk prisoners face for even discussing organizing, and efforts by prisons to undermine that organizing, why would prisoners lie about engaging in resistance? They certainly are not doing it to become celebrities. They only are willing to speak under pseudonyms. Does the Marshall Project mean to suggest readers should beware of organizers who may try to con them into caring about prison conditions?
Organizers have also made clear that prisoners may engage in acts individually and participate in different ways, such as boycotts, which would make their protest less visible. Other actions, such as hunger strikes, can be harder to confirm due to prison policies that recognize them only after meals are refused for a certain number of days.
On the flipside, prison officials have incentives to deny the existence of efforts to call attention to conditions. They do not want their bosses to think they have lost control of facilities. They do not want to embolden resistance. They are fighting an insurgency that they must control.
The flawed analysis may be part of the Marshall Project’s effort to compensate for not having previously developed sources involved in prison resistance, who can provide firsthand accounts of the action. They could have taken the time to file requests and do the reporting necessary to verify strike reports before declaring they were exaggerated.
Notably, the piece from Lewis is one of two prison strike reports the Marshall Project has published this year. The other piece provides a platform to a former prison warden for his unadulterated view on the strike, asking many questions that would have been better posed to actual prisoners.
One Marshall Project reader, Auburn Sandstrom, wrote to the publication to express her disappointment in Lewis’s piece. President Carroll Bogert responded.
“I’m curious who you think has done a better job investigating the prison strike than we have,” Bogert stated. “I saw a lot of pieces claiming that this was the biggest prison strike in decades, but not very many seemed to have made contact with people who are currently incarcerated or have firsthand knowledge of what’s happening on the inside.”
Only one prisoner was quoted by the Marshall Project in their article. If they talked to other prisoners, who took risks speaking to them, they did not use their words.
Bogert continued, “Journalism is hard. You can call a prison and ask the authorities if there’s a strike. They’ll almost invariably tell you nothing is happening. Of course, you don’t take them at their word. If you can reach an incarcerated person on a contraband cell phone, which is not easy and highly risky for them, they might tell you the exact opposite.”
“But a lot of incarcerated people might have reason to exaggerate what is really going on,” Bogert contended. “How can you check their information with a second source? Very, very difficult.”
For a publication with supposedly intimate knowledge of the realities of the United States legal system, and which claims to support “criminal justice reform,” this is not only a baffling assertion but a glaring admission of bias from the person who leads the organization.
Reporters must check their information before they publish. But they reveal their prejudice when they point to incarceration as an indicator of trustworthiness.
Bogert insisted characterizing the strike as potentially a PR stunt “wasn’t intended to demean the organizers but rather to measure their success on their own terms.”
“The Marshall Project exists to make the criminal justice more fair, effective, transparent and humane, using journalism. We believe in criminal justice reform. But we also believe that reformers are best served by accurate and verified information. Our prison strike story was an attempt to provide that, not to cheer the strike from the press room.”
“I can understand you might feel frustrated at where we draw the line between advocacy and journalism and again, I’m genuinely pleased that you took the time to write,” Bogert added.
Nobody expects journalists to “cheer the strike from the newsroom,” but they do expect journalism that portrays prisoners struggle for human rights in the world’s largest incarcerator without the glib condescension that pervades the Marshall Project’s coverage.
Scott Simon interviewed Lewis on NPR about the prison strike, even though the outlet had published virtually no original reporting on the strike. He seemed to be primarily concerned with why anyone should care about it.
The interview started with Simon suggesting ”a lot of people listening” think prisoners are lucky not to be starved to death by the government. (Note: “A lot of people listening” is like “some people say,” a convenient way to conceal one’s own perspective.)
In response, Lewis said the organizers spoke of “what they’re calling a stigma against them,” as though there’s some kind of a debate as to whether incarceration is a mark of disgrace in the U.S. The irony, of course, is how stigma underlies NPR and Marshall Project’s reporting.
SIMON: Yeah. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that a lot of people listening to this might not have any sympathy whatsoever to prisoners. They feel they’ve, you know, often hurt somebody, and they’ve been convicted. And they’re lucky to get three meals a day, however they taste.
LEWIS: That’s right. And I would say, a lot of the inmates that I’ve spoken to, or a lot of the organizers that I’ve spoken to, as well as some of the incarcerated organizers, recognize that there’s – what they’re calling a stigma against them. They recognize that until people have a bit more sympathy or empathy or at least a better understanding of the kinds of inhumane conditions they say they’re facing that nothing will change for them – that what they really need is a populace that can go out and vote and make concerted efforts towards the kinds of criminal justice reforms that they’re asking for.
SIMON: Well – but how do you contend, again, with the idea among taxpayers that a prisoner is lucky to get whatever he or she receives.
The perceptions of “taxpayers” are then considered briefly before shifting to the problems guards have restoring order after violent prison uprisings. They neglect to discuss the prison labor, facility conditions, and lack of opportunity that led to the strike’s announcement.
“Do prisoners really blame guards for not stopping them from committing violence?” Simon asks.
Simon fails to understand that prisoners believe conditions imposed by prisons foment tensions and encourage violence, which corrections officials not only fail to prevent but often intentionally create and refuse to prevent. This is how South Carolina prisoners view the incident at Lee Correctional Institution that led to the call for this action. What Simon is suggesting is that prison violence is not systemic, but the product of prisoners being naturally violent.
In response, Lewis goes along with Simon’s tropes about “violent criminals.” She suggests there are more people in prison for nonviolent offenses than violent offenses. For such ardent fact checkers, they seem to have missed this one. Only in the smaller federal prison system do nonviolent prisoners make up a more substantial portion of inmates. In the much larger state system, just over half of all people sentenced are there for violent offenses.
Nevertheless, the imagined distinction between Prisoners Guilty Of Violent Crimes and Prisoners Guilty Of Nonviolent Crimes implies those incarcerated for nonviolent offenses are okay to speak up for and save. Those convicted of violent offenses, on the other hand, do not deserve advocates.
“So what do you say to those people who are behind bars who don’t want to harm anyone feeling as though they’re unsafe and that the general public has no idea what’s actually happening?” she asks.
Over-policing, coerced plea deals, wrongful convictions, over-sentencing, and over-charging don’t seem to register for either journalist in this conversation. And regardless, human rights are supposed to be available to everyone (that’s why they’re human rights) so it should be beside the point. It should be easy for a “criminal justice reform” outlet to say no one deserves to suffer abuse and neglect in prisons that consistently dehumanize people.
The interview concludes by finally getting around to the 10 demands—the entire point of the action that brought Lewis on NPR in the first place:
SIMON: Do the strikers have a goal?
LEWIS: I think so. I mean, they’ve published a list of 10 demands that have been circulating around. The top two are an immediate change to the kinds of, you know, inhumane conditions that they’re facing, as well as to be paid the prevailing wage in whatever state that they’re incarcerated. And then the rest of the goals are sort of a mix of criminal justice reform issues that we’ve seen sort of percolate around the country.
The flippant attitude to prisoner demands is obnoxious, however, it represents the disconnect from the daily experiences of the prisoners. If journalists took prisoners seriously instead of desperately searching for reasons to doubt them, they might have a better understanding of the story.
Correction: The Marshall Project communications and development manager, Andrew Epstein, requested multiple corrections. Only one is reasonable. We incorrectly suggested the Marshall Project did not talk to prisoners. The organization contacted at least one prisoner, Swift Justice, from whom they published only five words: “It went big real quick.” We regret the error.
Clarification: A section that the Marshall Project took issue with relating to whether the organization accused outlets of publishing “unchecked information” was updated, and we stand by what was previously written.