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Federal prisoners served steak by unpaid guards during shutdown

With the federal government shutdown solidly into its third week, there is no shortage of hypocritical or ironic or just plain sad moments to further enrage apoplectic taxpayers:

There are the overflowing port-a-potties and trash cans at national parks, reports of Vice President Mike Pence's scheduled $10,000 pay raise, shuttered Smithsonian museums and the image of a relaxed-looking Nancy Pelosi vacationing at a Hawaiian resort where rooms top out north of $5,000 a night.

Joe Rojas, a union leader and a guard at Florida's Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, would like to add another scene to the growing list: an unpaid federal prison employee, working on New Year's Day, serving a steak supper to convicted murderers, gang members and terrorists.

For inmates at Coleman, New Year's Day lunch was grilled steak, steamed rice with gravy, black-eyed peas, green beans, macaroni and cheese, a choice of garlic biscuits or whole wheat bread and an assortment of holiday pies.

The feast was served by not-particularly-festive prison guards and workers who have no idea when they will receive their next paycheck - but who have to come to work anyway because they work in crucial public safety jobs.

"We're already stressed. Outside the shutdown, the job is stressful," said Rojas, who has been a prison guard since 1995 and, as soon as his car clears inspection, will be an Uber driver. "Now you've got the shutdown, you're coming to work, and then you see this."

"They're using federal workers in a game of chicken. Who's going to blink first? We're a pawn," he said. "I didn't sign up for this. I signed up for this job to protect society and to have a good government job so when I retire I can have a pension, not to be used in a game of chicken."

Chicken remains a sore subject for Rojas. Talking with colleagues in other facilities, he learned that federal inmates in Brooklyn feasted on Cornish hen and prisoners in Minnesota got chicken wings on New Year's Day.

The guards weren't the only people in the facility who understood the irony of the situation. The inmates, Rojas said, were "eating like kings and then laughing at us."

Others bragged about the filling meal in emails that were screened by prison personnel for safety reasons. Some were copied by employees and sent to Rojas.

"Ima end up fat i been eatin like a boss all week i just had steak, pie, chicken, potatoes, salad mac nd cheese rice all type of (things)," one wrote. "bro ibe workin out for (nothing)"

In a statement to NBC News, the Bureau of Prisons said holiday meals are "planned weeks in advance, including as happened here in advance of the government shutdown."

The meals help "promote morale for the inmate population because they are separated from their families," the bureau said.

Rojas remains miffed at the steak, but he says he's most concerned with the effects of a protracted government shutdown on employees who work in an already dangerous job. In addition to an assortment of gang members and murderers, Coleman houses terrorists and a Somali pirate. It was also home to gangster-turned-FBI-informant Whitey Bulger before he died.

These criminals are being guarded by people "putting in 16 hours a day," Rojas said, and many are picking up side jobs to be able to afford gas to make it to the prison facility. If they are tired or distracted, bad things will happen, he said.

"These inmates are not here for singing too loud at a church," Rojas said. "These are dangerous felons. We're working with killers. We're working with terrorists. All these guys do is think and hatch plans and figure out how to get weapons. It's like a molotov cocktail waiting to explode."

This article was written by Cleve Wootson, a reporter for The Washington Post.