For too long, people have assumed that correction officers' unions, by their very nature, must oppose justice reform. This assumption is based on the belief that decarceration is a zero-sum game and unions benefit from mass incarceration. But this isn't true; strong correctional unions are essential to justice reform.
Prisons, like hospitals and police departments, never close. But unlike other essential services, prisons can't get by on skeleton staffs; officers can be held for overtime shifts even when they don't want them. It happens often, whenever someone calls in sick takes vacation time. In fact, officers have been held so often that overtime costs for corrections officers in many states have reached record highs and contribute to the crippling costs of incarceration.
When I served a sentence at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, you could watch exhaustion creep into the officers' faces when they were held for an additional shift. Ones who were nice when they were fresh on a shift, became crabby, listless. They made mistakes, miscalculations during head count, errors in judgment. Like everyone else, they tired after 15 hours on the job. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the officers who allegedly fell asleep on the night of the Dannemora escape in June were handling heavy overtime.
Overincarceration offers no advantages to prison guards because there aren't enough of them to handle a swollen prison population. At least fifteen states - Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming - are now experiencing severe correctional officer shortages.
And, unsurprisingly, all except one of the states with severe shortages pay their corrections officers less than $20 per hour. Some of those states do have unions, but most do not.
If they had unions, wages could have been raised, making the job more attractive to recruits. In Tennessee, where prison guards don't have a union, the lack of a collective bargaining agreement allowed a change in scheduling policy to occur, ironically a change in schedules designed to cut overtime costs incurred by the state's shortage of guards. The scheduling change caused such staffing shifts amongst several correctional facilities that eight inmates were stabbed in one day.
In Mississippi, where the starting salary for a correction officer is $22,000, guards have been selling cell phones to inmates for $300 to supplement their salaries. The low wages aren't attracting enough new recruits and the levels of gang violence inside one Mississippi prison are so bad that a federal judge ruled that living in the facility was cruel and unusual punishment for anyone living inside.
Of course, unions often come in to defend member officers who inflict violence and abuse upon inmates. When we, as inmates, felt that we needed to report a correction officer for being particularly offensive or cruel, we knew that the guard's real power was not his position, but his posse, the union.
But strong correctional unions, when managed properly, should be able to control rogue officers. In June, the Department of Justice took over Alabama's only women's prison because, for 20 years, a culture of severe sexual abuse had developed with women being fondled and assaulted, even denied food and required to strip for officers for doughnuts. One would expect such severe abuse from employee who has backing in a union, but Alabama's correction corps doesn't have one.
Within every prison there is a core of very good men and women who will report misconduct if they knew it wouldn't cost them their livelihoods. If they were unionized, Alabama's good public servants would not have to make that impossible choice between providing for their families or sanctioning human rights violations because they would have enjoyed whistleblower protection from unionization. All of that abuse wouldn't have been heaped on women if the correction officers had been organized.
Even the ACLU's National Prison Project concedes that staffing shortages cause violent incidents. And prison violence - whether it's inflicted by guards or inmates - has been correlated with more post-release crime. It makes sense; rehabilitation cannot take place in such conditions, where inmates can be hurt - or continue to hurt others. Without rehabilitation, we guarantee ourselves unabating recidivism.
Unions have always been about protecting the little guy from the big guy. Prison guard unions are unique in that the Little Guys become the Big Guys as they relate to the inmates, the Littlest Guys. Perhaps this duality is what has enabled the correctional officers' union in New Mexico to soften their stance on releasing inmates from solitary confinement, an issue that usually invites disagreement from prison staff. I don't believe that correctional officer unions work against justice reform; I think we ask them too seldom to work for it.
In an oped in the Huffington Post this July, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called for organized labor to get involved in justice reform by announcing the formation of new committee, the Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice. Quite frankly, Trumka's plan for labor's role in criminal justice reform is insufficient.
It is time to recognize the fact that correction officers' work protections make prisons safer for everyone. If we are to reduce recidivism at all, organized labor must head into the states where officers lack unions and gather them together, leveraging the collective power of these individuals who - through the way they are treated and, in turn, treat prisoners - can be the engine of rehabilitation and reform.