[Marxism] How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane correctional system.
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 24 07:56:24 MST 2013
Big Labor's Lock 'Em Up Mentality
How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane
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  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  by human
rights and prison reform groups, and by the local activists who had
fought for years  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  op-ed, scholar-activist Stephen F. Eisenman
of the pro-closure group Tamms Year Ten  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  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
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  to
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 . The earlier number was provided by
Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota professor and author of The
Toughest Beat . Page, who has written extensively  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 ; the CCPOA would not provide a current
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  as not only torturous
but also counterproductive to prison safety. In fact, states that have
dramatically reduced their use  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 .
"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 . The union recently
sought to link  the closing to assaults on corrections officers at
other state prisons—even though none of the assailants had come from Tamms.
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