University of Minnesota sociologist Joshua Page’s The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (Oxford) chronicles the growth of the most powerful and politicized public-sector union in the country. Yet Page’s protagonist, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), offers more depth and pathos than you might expect from an organization of government employees.
In a skillful narrative, Page explains how the CCPOA’s political vigor derives from the prison guards’ hard experience as underdogs, hated first by the rehabilitation-oriented liberal consensus and later by the radical New Left. When California abandoned rehabilitation in favor of the country’s most punitive sentencing laws, the union was a supporting player. But its members’ legitimate grievances and even its alienation from the labor movement gave CCPOA a unique power, which it uses to block reform or privatization, keeping the Golden State’s 33 prisons full. —Tim Cavanaugh