Criminal Justice

Public Sector Prison Unions Are Spending Almost as Much on Campaigns as Private Prison Companies


Critics of the private prison industry often conflate the large sums Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group spend on political activities with attempts to undermine criminal justice reform. While there's little evidence that those two data points alone indicate opposition to reform (harsh state drug laws predate these companies by decades), critics of the incarceration state might want to turn their attention to public sector prison unions, which are also spending big money the 2011-2012 campaign cycle. 

Let's take a look at the two top spenders: 

  • The Correction Officers Benevolent Association has spent $183,800 thus far in 2011-2012
  • The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has spent $142,800 thus far in 2011-2012

COBA represents correctional officers in New York; CCPOA obviously represents workers in California. In 2011-2012, these two unions have donated to politicians and PACs in two states almost as much as GEO Group ($170,000) and Corrections Corp of America ($206,000) have donated to politicans and PACs in all 50 states. (Lobbying expenditures is, of course, another story.) 

Does that mean public sector prison unions are up to no good, the way private prisons are assumed to be? Or that the politicans they donate to have been corrupted by their influence, as the recipients of private prison money supposedly have been?

Let's go back to June 2012, when Republicans in the New York State Senate banded together to kill legislation that would have decriminalized the display of up to 25 grams of marijuana. That legislation was an attempt by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to eradicate the farcical distinction between possessing small amounts of pot (which is legal in New York) and showing that pot to a police officer who asks a suspect to empty his pockets (which is not legal). 

The chief opponent of this legislation was Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Long Island. Thus far in the 2011-2012 campaign cycle, Skelos has received $9,500 from the Correction Officers Beneveloent Association. Other New York Senate Republicans who opposed the legislation have also received donations from the group: $3,000 to Thomas Libous, $3,000 to George Maziarz, $2,500 to Martin Golden, $2,800 to Joseph Robach. A whopping $88,500 has gone from the COBA's coffers to that of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee of New York. 

So: Did New York Republicans oppose legislation that would have drastically reduced marijuana arrests because they received donations from a public sector union that benefits from marijuana arrests?

There is absolutely no way to know for sure, but it's safe to assume that if the money had come from CCA or GEO Group, critics of those companies would say yes, even if they couldn't prove it. 

What's even more striking about the lack of inquiry into the influence public sector prison unions have on criminal justice policy is that there's clear evidence of public sector prison unions fighting reform. 

In 2008, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent $1 million opposing Proposition 5, which would have

  • Expanded drug treatment diversion programs for criminal offenders.
  • Modified parole supervision procedures.
  • Expanded prison and parole rehabilitation programs.
  • Allowed inmates to earn additional time off their prison sentences for participation and performance in rehabilitation programs.
  • Reduced certain penalties for marijuana possession.
  • Made miscellaneous changes to state laws governing the administration of rehabilitation and parole programs for offenders.

Thanks in part to the big spending of the CCPOA, Prop 5 failed. That same cycle, the union spent $85,000 in support of Prop 9, a victim's rights law that

amends the Constitution to require that criminal sentences imposed by the courts be carried out in compliance with the courts' sentencing orders and that such sentences shall not be "substantially diminished" by early release policies to alleviate overcrowding in prison or jail facilities. The measure directs that sufficient funding be provided by the Legislature or county boards of supervisors to house inmates for the full terms of their sentences, except for statutorily authorized credits which reduce those sentences.

CCPOA's obstructionism doesn't end there. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote in August 2011

CCPOA's most direct interest is in retaining the state's iron web of sentencing laws and its stringent "three strikes" regime. The union's $101,000 donation to the Proposition 184 campaign in 1994 helped create the most punitive three-strikes law in the United States, which among other things allows any felony conviction (not limited to "serious or violent offenses") to trigger a sentence enhancement. In 2004 Proposition 66, a heavily promoted effort to amend that system, went down to defeat. The California secretary of state's office lists $71,000 in anti-66 spending from CCPOA, while a report from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center cites a $500,000 contribution to the No on 66 campaign. The pattern holds for attempts to reform incarceration laws in the legislature: If it involves imprisoning fewer Californians, you'll find the prison guards union on the other side.

Again, I don't know if COBA had anything to do with New York's display bill failing, but I do know this: the influence of public sector prison unions on criminal justice policy (like the influence weilded by police unions) has gone largely uninvestigated by journalists, and almost completely ignored by critics of the private prison industry. 

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  1. How much are they spending on alt-text?

    1. He’s getting too old for that shit.


        1. Uh, Epi, he didn’t really set you up for that Lethal Weapon line. It… it doesn’t really work here.

          1. Well, what do you wanna hear, man? Do you wanna hear that sometimes I think about eatin’ a bullet? Huh? Well, I do! I even got a special bullet for the occasion with a hollow point, look! Make sure it blows the back of my goddamned head out and do the job right! Every single day I wake up and I think of a reason not to do it! Every single day! You know why I don’t do it? This is gonna make you laugh! You know why I don’t do it? The job! Doin’ the job! Now that’s the reason!

            1. You’re not trying to draw a psycho pension! You really are crazy!

              1. Hey, look friend, let’s just cut the shit. Now we both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me; or they think I’m faking to draw a psycho pension, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.

            2. Don’t do it, man! You don’t have to be sick or injured to take your sick leave!

              1. I don’t make things difficult. That’s the way they get, all by themselves.

              2. You don’t have to be sick or injured to take your sick leave!

                I earned the right to lie and call in sick when I’m well. It’s in my contract!

                1. When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could have made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at. Well, see ya tomorrow.

                  1. I really enjoyed that movie.

                    1. Well, it did feature female nudity in the first few seconds.

    2. I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to alt-text some pictures. We left the camp after we had alt-texted the children for Reason, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated alt-text. There they were in a pile. A pile of little alt-texts. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we

      1. needs work…

  2. I’m trying to make a list of who is a part of the modern slaveholder lobby.

    We can call them the Calhouns.

    So far I’ve got:

    Private prison companies
    Public corrections employees unions
    Regional development groups and political officials for rural regions where prisons are located
    Police unions
    The National District Attorneys Organization
    Drug testing companies
    Drug treatment companies and non-profits

    I’m sure I’ve forgotten somebody.

    1. Judges who get kickbacks for sending kids to juvenile prison, often on minor drug changes.

      Never forget them.

      1. Don’t forget counselors. I think they very often include it as a condition of probation. I have a friend in Texas who has to pay $35 a week when he goes to probation required group counseling with as many as 8 other people. $280 for one hour of counseling sounds like some nice cash for someone.

    2. I like that :The Slaveholder lobby. Thanks Fluff. I will start annoying people at work with that phrase immediately.

    3. Teachers

  3. There’s gold in them thar cells!

    1. Fuck all y’all.

  4. Man thats jsut downright crazy when you think about it. Wow.

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