Corrections officer unions at odds with prison reformers

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

I missed this story when it first ran in Mother Jones last month, but it is still worth noting: Prison reform groups are apparently experiencing more and more friction from the unions that represent that people that work in the jails.

Efforts to close prisons and end use of solitary confinement are getting pushback from the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Federation of  State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union. Their argument: Hey, the closures affect our members’ jobs and solitary is needed to isolate the worst prisoners:

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.

Read the whole thing here. I don’t buy the authors’ premise that the unions are being unreasonable, but their story provides an interest perspective on a little-noticed phenomenon.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner