[Marxism] How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane correctional system.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 24 07:56:24 MST 2013


Mother Jones
Big Labor's Lock 'Em Up Mentality
How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane 
correctional system.

By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella | Fri Feb. 22, 2013 3:01 AM PST

On January 4, the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison in 
southern Illinois, officially closed its doors. Tamms, where some men 
had been kept in solitary confinement for more than a decade, was 
notorious [1] for its brutal treatment of prisoners with mental 
illness—and for driving sane prisoners to madness and suicide.

The closure, by order of Gov. Pat Quinn, was celebrated [2] by human 
rights and prison reform groups, and by the local activists who had 
fought for years [3] to do away with what they saw as a torture chamber 
in their backyard. But it might have been accomplished sooner were it 
not for a competing progressive faction: Big Labor.

The major force holding up Tamms' closure was the American Federation of 
State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which, according to its 
website, represents 85,000 corrections employees nationally. The union 
challenged Quinn's order through its legislative allies, stalled it via 
the courts, and mounted a public campaign to keep Tamms open. It was 
perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, 
in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor 
unions furthering America's addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of 
prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, 
unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.

With its more than 1.6 million total members, AFSCME has played an 
important role over the decades in securing basic rights for all sorts 
of government employees. The Memphis march that ended in the 
assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in support of an AFSCME 
strike. More recently, the union helped put (and keep) President Obama 
in office. It also is a key backer of health care reform and, during a 
period of labor decline, remains the biggest organizing union in the 

In a Chicago Sun-Times [4] op-ed, scholar-activist Stephen F. Eisenman 
of the pro-closure group Tamms Year Ten [5] pointed out that the union 
wasn't always so reactionary. In the '60s and '70s, Eisenman wrote, 
"AFSCME's leadership understood that workers' rights and human rights 
were inseparable." Then-union president Jerry Wurf, he added, tempered 
his zeal for organizing with compassion.

     When the big psychiatric hospitals, such as New York's Creedmoor, 
were being decertified, he did not argue to keep them all open. Instead, 
he fought to ensure that de-institutionalized mental health patients 
received adequate community and home care. Because he knew these 
hospitals were hellholes, he was willing to sacrifice some union jobs 
for the good of people with mental illnesses. But Wurf lost that battle. 
The national recession of the 1970s intervened, and a generation of 
patients were turned out in the streets without proper support. These 
are precisely the people who now fill our nation's jails and prisons.

"Torture Is a Crime—Not a Career," read the protesters' signs. "My Son 
Is Not a Paycheck."

Now AFSCME will apparently fight to keep a troubled prison open simply 
to keep some of its members from having to relocate. All of Tamms' union 
employees were guaranteed placement in other facilities, and no 
positions were lost due to the closure. But the union argued that 
conditions at Tamms—widely denounced as cruel, inhumane, and 
ineffective—were necessary for safety and security, and that the prison 
was needed to keep jobs in southern Illinois. Tamms Year Ten countered 
with protests [6] where prisoners' relatives hoisted signs bearing 
slogans like "Torture Is a Crime—Not a Career" and "My Son Is Not a 

AFSCME is just one of four large national unions—among them Service 
Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Government 
Employees (AFGE), and the Teamsters—representing prison workers. And 
corrections officers in a number of states and even some local jail 
systems have their own powerful unions.

With public-sector unions of all stripes under attack, there is an 
inclination to protect members at all costs. In some areas, this has led 
correctional-workers unions to join with prison reformers. They share 
concerns about overcrowding and understaffing, for example. In the case 
of Brown v. Plata, wherein the US Supreme Court ordered California to 
reduce overcrowding in its prisons, the California Correctional Peace 
Officers Association (CCPOA) described "an overcrowded, inadequately 
staffed system that cannot deliver adequate medical care in spite of the 
best efforts of prison employees." As one corrections officer explained 
at trial, there are "way too many inmates in that small of a space to do 
the job."

Naturally, prison reformers and unions both oppose privatization. The 
unions have largely kept private prison companies at bay in big states 
such as California and New York, and recently even managed to keep them 
out of Florida. "Privatizing prisons for profit is immoral," says AFGE's 
Dale Deshotel, who wrangles prison-union locals on behalf of the 
national union. "If you break the law then state or government should 
handle that function." Private prisons, he continues, are "a moneymaking 
project. In private prisons there is no programming for rehabilitation, 
for education." Adds SEIU spokeswoman Kawana Lloyd: "The for-profit 
companies reduce safety, bring down standards, and have corrupt 
relationships with politicians."

Yet whether prisons are public or private, preserving jobs generally 
means locking away as many people as possible for as long as 
possible—contrary to the goal of reducing mass incarceration. 
California's prison guards union, for example, was one of the primary 
sponsors of the proposition that brought about Three Strikes in the 
1990s. In the aughts, the union opposed parole reform and vigorously 
campaigned to defeat politicians it regarded as soft on crime. It has 
also supported the death penalty, despite the staggering cost [7] to 
state taxpayers.
Membership in the California prison guards union, which has pushed for 
tough sentencing, has more than sextupled since 1982.

All of this fueled the CCPOA's rapid expansion: Membership more than 
sextupled between 1982 and 2011 (from roughly 5,000 to 31,000 members) 
and its annual budget ballooned from roughly $500,000 in the early '80s 
to more than $23 million today [8]. The earlier number was provided by 
Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota professor and author of The 
Toughest Beat [9]. Page, who has written extensively [10] about the 
state prison guards' union, says the CCPOA seems to be softening some of 
its positions of late, but it remains a potent political force in 
California, which has America's largest prison population. (The $23 
million figure is a conservative calculation from the policy group 
California Common Sense [11]; the CCPOA would not provide a current 
budget figure.)

As strapped states and localities look to their corrections budgets for 
savings, unions have fought proposed facility closures and the 
establishment of programs that would divert offenders into treatment and 
other lockup alternatives. They have frequently opposed reforms that 
could affect their members' autonomy, including oversight programs 
designed to curb abuses by prison employees.

Several unions have attempted to counter the growing tide of reformers 
who condemn long-term solitary confinement [12] as not only torturous 
but also counterproductive to prison safety. In fact, states that have 
dramatically reduced their use [13] of isolated confinement have seen 
prison violence drop. Yet in Illinois, AFSCME continues to claim that 
closing the Tamms has put its members' lives in danger. And in New York 
City, the powerful Correction Officers Benevolent Association pushed 
hard for the construction of nearly 1,000 new solitary-confinement cells 
on Rikers Island, blaming a rise in prison violence on a supposed 
shortage of isolation beds.

In Maine, state corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has gained a 
reputation for cutting back on the use of solitary at Maine State 
Prison, recently fired the union-backed, old-school warden Patricia 
Barnhart and replaced her with a reformer, Roy Bouffard. "I'm definitely 
going to soften" the prison, Bouffard told the Portland Phoenix [14].
"In many cases I wish we had the space for solitary confinement," says a 
union spokesman. "Some of them deserve to be alone."

Officially, most of the national unions say they have little interest in 
solitary confinement. "We have not taken a position nationally," says 
Chris Fleming, a DC spokesman for AFSCME. Neither has the SEIU or the 
Teamsters, according to their spokespeople.

Deshotel, the spokesman for the American Federation of Government 
Employees, which represents 24,000 federal prison employees, had more to 
say about it. "In many cases I wish we had the space for solitary 
confinement," he told us in a phone interview. "Some of them deserve to 
be alone. They are very dangerous. In fact, in some of our prisons we've 
got to keep them separated because of the possibility they would hurt 
one another or create problems for us. I do know people should be 
treated with dignity. However, a person in prison for violent acts and 
cannot control himself or herself, there are times they need to be 

He continued: "It does have an effect on a human being. We are not built 
that way, created that way, to live in isolation. However in a prison 
setting where an individual refuses to program or cooperate, if we had 
the opportunity, we would use it much more. But we are so overcrowded 
that our hands are tied. We struggle to find the empty space to isolate 
some of these people, people who can't function we cannot tolerate. And 
we will not tolerate it. That's different from putting someone in a room 
for no real reason."

In local fights over solitary, labor unions have landed squarely in 
favor of maintaining, if not expanding, its use. And in Illinois, AFSCME 
has yet to give up its PR campaign against the closure of Tamms—which 
soon will have new life as a federal supermax [15]. The union recently 
sought to link [16] the closing to assaults on corrections officers at 
other state prisons—even though none of the assailants had come from Tamms.

[3] http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/14302/supermax_showdown
[5] http://www.yearten.org/
[11] http://www.cacs.org/
[13] http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/pdf/12-6-19EppsTestimony.pdf
[16] http://capitolfax.com/2013/02/04/afscme-gears-up/

More information about the Marxism mailing list