Unionizing Prison Guards in an Age of Mass Incarceration
Dozens of people gathered outside of a supermax prison in Illinois in April demanding that the facility be shut down. They held signs that read “I am a mom,” a spin on the iconic “I am a man” signs held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.
But these protesters – many of them mothers of incarcerated men at the prison – were directing the repurposed slogan in part against the very same union that represented those African-American strikers as they marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King more than 40 years ago.
Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been engaged in a campaign to oppose Governor Pat Quinn’s plans to close down the Tamms prison in southern Illinois in addition to seven other state correctional facilities. The campaign has pitted the union against many low-income, mostly Black community members whose loved ones have faced torturous conditions at Tamms, including the long-term isolation of inmates.
One the one hand, this is a familiar struggle in the age of austerity. For AFSCME, it’s about jobs. For the governor, it’s about cutting the budget. But for the mothers, it’s a matter of human rights and social justice.
The controversy around the Tamms prison isn’t unique. Like other instances in which unions have and continue to resist prison closures, it raises a larger question for the labor movement and those who care about stopping the injustices that are so central to the nation’s criminal justice system. Is it in the interests of organized labor to advocate for the kind of policies that have helped make the U.S. home to the largest prison population on the planet?
While this is not a new conundrum for the labor movement, the fight around the Tamms prison in Illinois is happening at a time when the issues of union rights and criminal justice have been pushed to the fore of national attention in recent months. The historic battle around collective bargaining in Wisconsin has put the spotlight on the union movement in the same way that the execution of Troy Davis and the killing of Trayvon Martin have been a lightning rod for debate and protest against the racism of the criminal justice system.
Since its inception, the labor movement has long championed social justice issues, if not always consistently. AFSCME’s stance on keeping prisons like Tamms open to save its members’ jobs while prison rights activists protest to shut them down creates an awkward contradiction in working-class principles.
Representing around 85,000 corrections officers and employees throughout the country, AFSCME has been organizing prison employees for decades. But it certainly isn’t alone.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, representing more than 30,000 officers in that state, has been representing correctional officers since the 1950s. The conservative CCPOA has lobbied in favor of draconian tough-on-crime policies. It campaigned heavily to support the notorious Three Strikes law which helped make California a global leader in prison construction.
Nationwide, thousands of poor Blacks and Latinos – including many non-violent offenders – have had their lives turned upside down by these heavy-handed laws, instituting a system of social control which author Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”
To be sure, unionization among prison employees doesn’t always turn the priorities of labor against those of prison reform activists. Recently, newly-organizing correctional officers in Florida successfully defeated a bill that would have privatized nearly a third of the state’s prisons.
In that case, the unionized correctional officers stood shoulder to shoulder with activists fighting against perhaps the most nefarious incarnation of the New Jim Crow – the prison industrial complex. But even there, the common ground between the two groups generally begins and ends where cost-cutting corporate interests seek to profit off of mass incarceration.
The injustices that are so bound up with criminal justice policy in the U.S. – from the cops, to the courts, to the carceral system – have been forced into mainstream discussion thanks to decades of activist struggle and official revelations about police brutality, torture, wrongful convictions, and the stark racism that runs through the entire system. Hunger strikes among prisoners like the ones that swept the state of California last year have exposed the inhumane conditions faced by inmates in the country’s sprawling network of penitentiaries.
And the statistics speak for themselves. Of the nearly 2.5 million people behind bars – a 625 percent increase since 1975 – 39 percent are Black. Seven million people are under some form of correctional control in the U.S., a country with five percent of the world’s population and yet 25 percent of world’s incarcerated population. And more than half of the inmates in federal prisons are doing time for drug convictions.
With this record, the U.S. has earned its title as the “incarceration nation,” which is also the title of a Time magazine article last month examining the fallout of the failed “war on drugs.” As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recently wrote, “There are more Black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system – in prison, on probation, or on parole – than were in slavery [in 1850]. Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America…than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”
Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has pushed a damning analysis of the criminal justice system even deeper into popular discourse. Her book examines the history of mass incarceration in the U.S., explaining how the war on drugs has produced a modern system of social control akin to the racist, segregationist laws that dominated the post-Civil War South. Today, legalized discrimination and political disenfranchisement of people of color continue as a result of criminal status rather than the overt racism of Jim Crow.
In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to use race explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt…Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.
The question of whether unionism among police and correctional officers puts a segment of the union movement at odds with the movement to dismantle the New Jim Crow is too often ignored or given short shrift within the labor movement. Unions representing prison guards and workers typically frame their public advocacy using the rhetoric of public safety, playing into the conservative trope about protecting communities from dangerous criminals. This undermines any positive role these unions might play in challenging the policies of mass incarceration.
Correctional officer unions and organized labor as a whole need to more forcefully take part in the conversation about prison reform before opportunistic union-busters succeed in steering public outrage at mass incarceration toward anti-union sentiment.
In fact, the policy interests of prison guard unions have already given way to pro-reform arguments from the right-wing that blame mass incarceration on the unions. A recent article in the Philadelphia City Paper looks at the how one conservative foundation is “criticizing a labor union for being too tough on crime.”
As Daniel Denvir writes in the article, “After decades of bipartisan support for tough-on-crime politics, it is oddly refreshing to hear conservatives attack an ostensibly left-leaning group for stoking crime paranoia.”
But Denvir also notes that the right-wing is using increased public awareness and interest in prison reform “as yet another bludgeon with which to beat up on the labor movement.” Also important is the fact that conservative ideas about “prison reform” rely heavily on turning penal institutions over to for-profit operations.
In an article published last year in Criminology & Public Policy, Temple University professor Heather Ann Thompson counters the idea that prison guard unions wield any real influence in preserving the status quo of mass incarceration.
“There is little correlation between the presence of guard unions, even the presence of large guard unions who have had a militantly conservative history like the CCPOA and NYSCOPBA [New York state correctional officers union], and the fate of a given state’s carceral apparatus,” Thompson writes.
“As it happens, only three of the six states that experienced the most substantial increase in prison populations in 2008 (Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Arizona, and Tennessee) had a serious guard union presence.”
Unions like CCPOA and NYSCOPBA have taken some abhorrent positions when it comes to the policies of the New Jim Crow. But Thompson argues that most prison officer unions rarely play much of a political role. And when they do, their general opposition to prison privatization and the risks that overcrowding places on workplace safety has at times led prison guard unions to stand against the expansion of the carceral state.
In any case, right-wing political forces like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are far more powerful in their agenda to widen the oppressive reach of the prison system than any union could ever be.
Still, when the preservation of jobs is the main focus of union activism, prison guard unions are more likely to oppose efforts to reduce the prison population and shut down prisons. Like other unions, they advocate for their members at the workplace level, bargaining for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Their political activism beyond the workplace puts them in the public fray over economic and social priorities as they lobby for policies that would seem to benefit their membership.
But if there has been any impact from this advocacy, it has been the New Jim Crow that has impacted organized labor, not the other way around.
It’s no coincidence that the prison boom has coincided over the last three decades with the decline in industrial manufacturing jobs. As Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “In the early 1980s, just as the drug war was kicking off, inner-city communities were suffering economic collapse. The blue-collar factory jobs that had been plentiful in the 1950s and 1960s had suddenly disappeared.”
Since the 1970s, neoliberal outsourcing and deindustrialization has contributed to unemployment among people of color, leading to the tripling of urban poverty rates over a period of ten years. Economic deprivation has continued and worsened for the poor since the 1980s, providing the conditions for drug use and trafficking in the midst of the law-and-order hysteria of the drug war. Harsh sentencing, including mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses and the crack-cocaine disparity, has been a key weapon in a war on drugs that has in effect been a war on the poor and people of color.
Not surprisingly, the decline in union representation in manufacturing has happened alongside the growth of correctional workers represented by unions. While the shift is a reflection of the larger economic trends in those two sectors, it presents challenges for the labor movement from a social justice perspective.
Like the prisoners behind bars, prison guards are a part of the working class. But when their unions support prison growth, they set the interests of the working-class prison guards against the rights and dignity of the working-class prisoners. Rather than leveraging their influence to push for both better working conditions for their members and progressive reforms to beat back the New Jim Crow, prison employee unions counterpose union rights and social justice when they campaign to keep facilities like Tamms open.
By opposing the racist policies of mass incarceration and fighting to expand industrial employment, labor can win good union jobs for those who are otherwise railroaded by the criminal justice system. From the shop floor to the cell block, workers have so much more to gain from that struggle.
In fact, the very integrity of the working class depends on it.
Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.