Prison Unions Essay

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The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is a major labor union  in the United  States. AFSCME Corrections United (ACU) is the primary labor union for correctional officers with 62,000 corrections officers and 23,000 corrections employees. The union’s mission is to fight for better pay and benefits and safe work environments for corrections personnel.  ACU members are men and women who work all across the United States in state prisons  and  county  jails. Correctional  officers and staff undoubtedly benefit from being a part of a union.  Correctional officers’ salaries have increased steadily over the past four decades. In the 1960s, the median correctional officer salary hovered around $8,500 annually. In 2013, correctional officers could expect to make $40,000 annually. In addition, correctional unions helped secure health care benefits and pensions for their members. Correctional unions also helped set standards for safe working environments within facilities such as appropriate staffing levels to ensure correctional officer and inmate safety.

The ACU has fought the expansion of private prisons. On average, private prison employees receive 58 fewer hours of training than their publicly employed counterparts. Employees of private prisons frequently do not enjoy the same benefits as public employees and may be hired only on a part-time basis, which prevents employees from receiving insurance and retirement benefits, as well as full-time on-the-job experience. High turnover results in reduced staff, which could increase the risk of an escape or riot. Private prisons are also accused of attempting to cut costs by reducing or denying medical services to inmates.

Although there have been several positive changes to come about  as the result of prison unions,  there  have  been  some  questionable changes as well. One of the more serious concerns is that the ACU actively pursues and supports policies that contribute to mass incarceration. In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn ordered the closure of Tamms Correctional Center and was met with fierce opposition by the ACU. Human rights groups know Tamms as a supermax prison notorious for inhumane conditions, including the mistreatment of prisoners with mental illness. Its excessive use of solitary confinement resulted in many prisoners developing mental illnesses and in increased suicides. The ACU fought the closure of Tamms by lobbying its legislative allies, successfully stalled the measure using the courts, and mounted a public campaign to keep the facility open even when faced with the reality of serious human rights violations at the facility. Opponents of prison expansion argue that prison unions like the ACU are more interested in securing jobs for their members than addressing the often deplorable conditions of confinement and human rights abuses perpetrated by correctional officers and staff against prisoners.  Tamms closed on January 4, 2013. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised the closing of Tamms as a victory for the humane treatment of prisoners. The ACLU also used the closing to highlight the deleterious effects for inmates of prolonged exposure to solitary confinement.

The ACU is not the only correctional officer union in the United States. In 1957,  nine correctional  officers who worked  at San Quentin Prison founded the California Correctional Officers Association (CCOA). The officers rallied the support of correctional officers across three California prisons (Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin) to create the CCOA in order to represent the officers’ concerns.  The most  pressing  concerns were the low salaries and substandard working conditions of the prisons. In 1982, the Dills Act, which permitted collective bargaining for all state employees, was passed. That year, the CCOA was renamed the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), and it became the sole representation of all peace officer personnel in the Department of Corrections and the Youth Authority. Union membership has grown from 2,500 officers in 1978 to more than 45,000 officers.

Many view the CCPOA as one of the most politically influential entities in California politics. The union openly endorses “tough on crime” politicians and lobbies in favor of “get tough” crime policies. For example,  CCPOA supports the Victims’ Rights Political Action Committee that lobbies to keep prisoners in prison longer. In 1993, the union donated $1 million to gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson after he publically endorsed three-strikes laws. CCPOA has contributed millions of dollars to support “three strikes” and other get-tough laws that lengthen the sentences of offenders and increase sanctions for those who violate parole conditions. In other words,  the  CCPOA  lobbies  for  correctional policies that will significantly expand the use of incarceration.

The expansion of incarceration is ethically problematic for several reasons. First, expanding incarceration merely to ensure job security for correctional officers reduces inmates to commodities. Second, the expansion of incarceration should be the result of a genuine societal need, such as protecting law-abiding citizens from violent offenders. Three-strikes laws in many states include those convicted of a nonviolent  felony drug offense. Some argue that the most responsible way to deal with nonviolent drug offenders is to place them in residential drug treatment facilities, not prison. Third, the expansion of incarceration will continue to exacerbate the overcrowded conditions at many correctional facilities. When prisons and jails are overcrowded, there is an increased risk of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults. Overcrowded prisons also experience  increases in inmate and staff exposure to airborne diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis.


  1. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “Jobs We Do: Corrections.” (Accessed May 2013).
  2. Page, Joshua. “Prison Officer Unions and the Perpetuation of the Penal Status Quo.” Criminology & Public Policy, v.10 (2011).
  3. Page, Joshua. The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  4. Ridgeway, James and Jean Casella. “Solidarity and Solitary: When Unions Clash With Prison Reform.” Solitary Watch. (Accessed October 2013).

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