Conservatives blame unions for prison-industrial complex

You might think the political universe now stands upon its head: the Commonwealth Foundation, a potent conservative force in Pennsylvania politics, is criticizing a labor union for being too tough on crime.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, amidst a growing nationwide movement of conservatives (under the banner “Right on Crime”) embracing criminal justice reform, has proposed reducing the state's prison population. And a labor union representing prison guards is, as Commonwealth phrases it, “fear-mongering” over a proposal to—get this—simply speed the release of people already approved to be released on parole.


“The only way it can be done is they’re going to have to cut people loose that shouldn’t be cut loose,”   Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association's Roy Pinto told the Patriot-News.

Commonwealth unleashed a deserved―though perhaps, as I will explore below, exaggerated―barrage of criticism: “While bad policies may have led to the explosion in state prison populations,” wrote Commonwealth's Katrina Currie, “it may be the unions that pose the biggest challenge in getting the inmate numbers down.”

The criticism was echoed one week later by the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune: “Corbett's plan to control escalating state prison costs through better efficiencies in the state Department of Corrections has met with predictable fear-mongering from the head of the prison guards' union.... Leave it to the union mentality to advance a straw-man argument against commonsense solutions.”

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.

“CF is using a union-busting frame to be maximally persuasive to an audience of Republican lawmakers, staffers and voters,” blogger Jon Geeting writes, “but that’s the basic shape of the issue.... If we’re going to achieve the progressive goal of reversing the terrifying trend of runaway mass incarceration, that necessarily means fewer people are going to work as corrections officers. That’s just how it is — if we want fewer prisons, some of the people who now work in prisons will have to do something else.”

What's that something else? Well, if Corbett and Commonwealth have their way with the budget, that something else won't be working in schools or universities. One friend of mine in New York is campaigning to revive the upstate dairy industry as an alternative to prison jobs. Anyhow.

Commonwealth's myopic focus on the role of unions does merit closer scrutiny. The prison guard's statement is clearly abhorrent, but it does appear that conservatives are using prison reform as yet another bludgeon with which to beat up on the labor movement. (Commonwealth has also attacked unions for opposing Corrections Secretary John Wetzel's plan to outsource prison nursing work.)

Numerous Harrisburg insiders say, after all, that the prison guard's union is not very powerful in Harrisburg. And they aren't that really powerful anywhere, according to Heather Ann Thompson, a prison historian at Temple University (and author of a much-anticipated forthcoming book on the Attica prison uprising).

In a 2011 article in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, Thompson argued that guards form unions to fight against “working conditions that were virtually guaranteed once such staggering numbers of Americans were locked up.” She says that the guards unions infamous for waging high-profile tough-on-crime campaigns―the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA)―not the norm.

And in any case, Thompson says that neither the California nor New York guards unions have been the decisive force in fanning the flames of war-on-crime hysteria.

Commonwealth, their proclivity for opportunistic union-bashing notwithstanding, says they are eager to work with progressives on prison reform.

“Funding positive results, not just punishments is a policy that should be universally supported regardless of political affiliation,” Commonwealth Director of Public Affairs Jay Ostrich tells City Paper. “Through bipartisan cooperation that embraces common sense reforms, prison populations can be significantly reduced without compromising public safety.”

Wetzel, with conservative backing, aims to decrease the state prison population by 2,500 inmates next year. But advocates are skeptical: the state prison population reached a record 51,638 in December, and Corbett's proposed budget holds prison spending steady (meanwhile, state universities face massive cuts). Although in 2009 the number of state prisoners nationwide declined for the first time in 38 years, Pennsylvania's prison population grew by 2,122 people (4.3 percent) ― more than in any other state, according to a Pew Center on the States study. And a study released last month by Pew and the Vera Institute of Justice found Pennsylvania actually spends a minimum of $2.1 billion on prisons, $463.8 million more than is generally reported.

Meanwhile, our hapless legislature is paying almost no attention to the issue.

The Corbett administration has made some progress: people guilty of small or technical parole violations are now handled with more flexibility, so an average of 930 fewer parolees per year are now being returned to prison.

Nationwide, conservatives are finally embracing “small government” when it comes to prisons. The fire-breathing minister Pat Robertson has come out for legalizing marijuana. Hallelujah.

Commonwealth has a fact sheet on the prison boom that have in large part been produced by a civil rights organization, and their president, Matthew J. Brouillette, is a signatory to Right on Crime's Statement of Principals. Former Pennsylvania Republican Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is now speaking out for reform.

But we still have six million Americans under some form of “correctional supervision”―more, notes the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, than were trapped in “the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.”

Scholar Michelle Alexander calls our peculiar carceral state the “new Jim Crow.”

Radically downsizing the mass incarceration machine in Pennsylvania and nationwide is going to take an enormous―and yes, bipartisan―effort. But the effort will need to be just as loud and hysterical as the War on Drugs movement that caused this whole mess in the first place. Though the necessary political dynamic is in place, the movement has not yet arrived.