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Hard to digest: Inmates eat holiday steak during shutdown while prison workers go unpaid

Some Florida prisoners mocked the guards while feasting on a New Year’s Day lunch of grilled steak, garlic macaroni biscuits and holiday pies, worker says.
The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York.Kathy Willens / AP file
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By Andrew Blankstein, Tammy Leitner and Rich Schapiro

The partial government shutdown created a delicious irony at federal prisons — inmates dining on lavish holiday meals in front of disgruntled staffers forced to work without pay.

The striking dynamic played out at dozens of prisons across the country on Christmas and New Year's Day, several workers told NBC News, aggravating staffers who were already fretting about bills to pay and children to feed.

Inmates at FCI Pekin in Illinois enjoyed a fancy meal of steak and shrimp on Jan. 1. Cornish hen and Boston Creme pie were on the menu at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. And the prisoners at a federal institution in Minnesota munched on heaping plates of chicken wings, according to staffers and documents obtained by NBC News.

"You're giving a gift to somebody who committed a crime, but yet you won't pay the people who are supervising them?" said Sandy Parr, a food service foreman at Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. "It's frustrating and maddening."

The shutdown marks the latest hardship for a group of roughly 36,000 federal employees who have been complaining about staff shortages and dangerous work conditions for months.

In addition to working without pay, many of the prison staffers, including correctional officers, were ordered to cut vacations short or face a loss in wages and possible administrative punishment, including suspensions.

Adding to the staffers' bitter feelings, the working inmates were still drawing government paychecks for their prison jobs, which include painting buildings, cooking meals and mowing lawns.

"This is like kicking someone when they are down," Joe Rojas, president of The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 506 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Fla., wrote in a recent letter to the Bureau of Prisons.

In an interview with NBC News, Rojas said some inmates mocked demoralized prison staffers while feasting on a New Year's Day lunch of grilled steak, garlic macaroni biscuits and assorted holiday pies.

"They are getting a lavish meal and we are working the holidays away from our families wondering if we can pay the rent or make it home," he said.

June Bencebi, a case manager at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, expressed a similar frustration.

"They're more worried about appeasing these inmates than making sure we get paid," said Bencebi, 47.

Bencebi worked on Christmas and New Year's Day when inmates chowed down on Cornish hen and roast beef, with macaroni and cheese, and Boston Creme pie and other treats for dessert.

"A lot of the staff were upset over the fact that we don't know where our next meal is going to come, and these inmates were served so much food they were able to get on the serving line twice," said Bencebi, who is also the treasurer for the local prison workers union.

The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that holiday meals are "planned weeks in advance, including as happened here in advance of the government shutdown."

The special dinners are served on the holidays to "promote morale for the inmate population because they are separated from their families," the statement added. "On Christmas, a facility may serve a special meat choice such as Cornish hen or a special dessert."

Eric Young, AFGE's national president of prison locals, said it was "despicable" for the federal government to serve up choice meals to inmates while forcing staffers to forgo their pay and vacations.

"Imagine doing that at a time when you've got staff who can't put food on the table or put gas in the car," Young said. "You can imagine what that does to the morale."

Young added: "We are the collateral damage as a result of their politics."

Some federal prison workers, bracing to go without their next paycheck, have taken second jobs to make ends meet.

Instead of returning home after his shift at FCI Mendota in California, Aaron McGlothin has been spending many of his nights picking up fares while driving for Uber.

"I never wanted to drive an Uber, but I don't know if I'm going to get a paycheck at the prison," said McGlothin, a correctional officer. "And so I have no choice."

"It's rather embarrassing for me," he added. "Not everyone has a large savings. Some people live paycheck to paycheck. I'm one of them."

For Dwayne Bautista, a correctional officer at FDC Honolulu and local union president, the financial consequences of the shutdown are not his only concern.

The 16-year veteran worries the closing down of the government will endanger the safety of the prison workers. With some staffers calling in sick, a skeleton crew has been forced to run all of the facility's normal operations. In some cases, Bautista said, workers are doing 16-hour shifts.

"These guys are going to get burnt out and might make bad decisions," said Bautista. "Working over 16 hours on a day-to-day basis is unhealthy. I'm just hoping this government opens up."

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