Correcting the Guards

California State Assemblyman Fabian Nunez has been on the right side of a lot of legislation. But last May, prison reform activists were angered when the Democrat eviscerated a bill regarding elections reform and turned it into a measure to issue bonds for increased prison construction. While boosting rehabilitation efforts or easing the system’s overcrowding may have been his primary concern, the $3,300 check his campaign received a week later from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) likely made an impact.

Nunez’s action highlights the interconnectivity of two pressing issues for progressives that aren't typically considered related: the rise of the prison-industrial complex and the decline of organized labor. On one hand, prison systems are expanding across the country. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed law AB900 in May, which requires the state to add 53,000 new prison beds. As a result, California taxpayers will spend more on incarceration then on public universities by 2012.

Overall, the United States has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that union membership declined sharply in 2006, dropping from 12.5 percent of all workers to just 12 percent. Even public-sector membership fell slightly.

Who has played a role in both troubling developments? Prison guard unions and associations, the men and women whose economic livelihood depends on the existence of such institutions. Given the liminal space they inhabit, understanding the guard unions could be helpful in reversing both trends.

First off, it should be made clear that, when under the auspices of the larger organized labor movement, prison guard unions can aggressively advocate for their workers' interests while promoting sound public policy. The Corrections United Division of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is arguably the strongest example of such an organization. AFSCME Corrections United (ACU) represents 60,000 correctional officers and 23,000 other corrections employees in states like Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon. Through collective bargaining, corrections officers have gained a critical voice in their workplace and won pay raises, increased benefits, and additional training. Such affiliated guard unions don't, in fact, usually push for prison expansions. "Like a traditional union, [ACU] doesn't usually find itself lobbying for conservative prison legislation," says Heather Ann Thompson, a labor historian at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte, who is writing a book about the 1971 prison riot in Attica, New York. "It sticks to making sure that all guards have [things like] bargaining rights, counseling, and healthcare for guard families."

ACU members agitate through their international union to support legislation that benefits all working people. For example, ACU and other AFSCME members forced congress to include $20 billion for aid to state governments in the President's 2003 tax cut package, $10 billion of which was funneled into federal Medicaid payments and an additional $10 billion that went to general revenue sharing grants to states.

Unaffiliated prison guard associations are a different story. The rise of such organizations is tied to difficulties faced by organized labor in the correctional sector. Aside from ACU's success, labor unions and prison guards have long experienced a chilly relationship. Moreover, misguided labor laws that negatively affect public employees have also impeded a productive partnership. When the National Labor Relations Act failed to grant public employees collective bargaining rights at the national level, only protecting worker’s rights to freedom of speech and association as promised in the U.S. Constitution, organizers had to fight tooth and nail for a mélange of federal, state, and local laws lacking universal coverage, range, or security.

Frustrated with the limitations, many guards abandoned organized labor entirely beginning in the 1980s to form their own representative associations. These bodies staunchly protect their workers while appealing to lawmakers who are receptive to tough-on-crime legislation that might prove profitable down the road. "The labor movement has largely given up on capturing the hearts and minds of guards and into that vacuum has stepped the associations," says Thompson. "And they are much more conservative."

The most notorious of these groups is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the gatekeepers to the biggest prison system in the land. Organized under the California State Employees Association for 25 years, California's guards broke away from the union in 1982 and joined forces with Youth Authority supervisors and parole officers to consolidate organizational strength. Concurrently, public anxiety about rising crime led politicians to advocate increasingly punitive initiatives, causing a dramatic rise in arrests and a subsequent prison boom (in California, two-thirds of state facilities have opened since 1984). The shrewd CCPOA organizers leveraged these trends and built an association that some argue wields a disproportionate amount of political power.

Public Affairs Director Ryan Sherman is quick to point out the success CCPOA has achieved in safeguarding its 30,000 members, including "pay raises, improved benefit packages, psychological screening for new officers, added training, and improved safety equipment and practices." But the CCPOA is not your run-of-the-mill machinist union; by spending over $7 million a year on political activities, the CCPOA has significantly shaped the state's prison-industrial complex.

Many of CCPOA's financial contributions push incarceration directly. In 1994, CCPOA contributed to the campaign for Proposition 184 -- more commonly known as the Three Strikes Law -- which substantially lengthened prison sentences for persons who had previously been convicted of a violent or serious crime. As Thompson says, "many argue that it could not have passed had it not been for the CCPOA." Ten years later, the guards spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, a Three Strikes reform initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence.

CCPOA also leans heavily on politicians to promote prison-friendly laws. Former Governor Gray Davis, who received more than $3 million from the prison guard union while in office, emphasized prison funding in lieu of money for schools during successive budget cuts. Besides legislators, California's guards invest liberally in local district attorney races too, both to fill the judiciary with law enforcement agents privy to incarceration and to stave off prosecutions of corrections officers accused of prisoner abuse or misconduct of fellow guards.

They have also bankrolled conservative victim's rights groups, a prosperous marriage that stokes public fear of politically weak prisoners by wedding the financial strength of guards and the public-relations strength of victims. "The victim's rights groups should definitely have a voice in public policy," says Rose Braz, an organizer for the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, "but I think traditionally those groups have come from a very right-wing perspective on this issue, whereas there are a lot of people who have suffered harm at the hands of others who don't identify with their philosophy."

While the CCPOA is distinctive because of its size and political strength, other state guard associations have executed similar actions. The New York State Correctional Peace Officers and Benevolent Association (NYSCPOBA) is working to derail a commission proposed by Governor Elliot Spitzer that would study the advantages of closing some of the state's 12 penitentiaries. NYSCPOBA has found allies in Upstate Republican lawmakers whose districts house the facilities. And according to research by Sasha Volokh, a visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Florida and Rhode Island guards have at times endorsed tough-on-crime candidates.

The division among guards complicates the relationships of otherwise natural allies. The manner in which the guard associations maneuver politically alienates sympathetic organizers. But while the interests of guards, prison reformers, and labor activists won't always align, these groups do share common ground. Most obvious, all have a stake in shutting down private prisons. Guards in privately run facilities aren't provided sufficient training and pay, human rights activists decry the inadequate health care and living conditions supplied to the incarcerated, and labor must battle the unequal competition of cheap prison labor. A coordinated effort of lobbying and direct action could go a long way towards passing two House bills that ACU supports, one that would prohibit the privatization of federal prison facilities and another that would require private prisons to make information available on levels of staffing, pay, and the availability of training opportunities.

Other sensible reforms might appeal to a broad coalition as well. One would be easing the punitive nature of the system, including long sentences that contribute to overcrowding or solitary confinement that causes mental distress and can provoke violence. The expansion of public-sector jobs to offset prison closure could be another avenue to investigate. "I don't have an issue with the fact that California's prison guards make a good living. I think they should make a good living," says Braz. "I just wish they were doing things under state employment that I believe are productive for the community."

But until the guards and unions meet halfway, broad-based affiliation following the ACU model seems unlikely. "For us, it's not about trying to reinvigorate organized labor," says Sherman. "We're just interested in taking care of our members."