At The New York Times, reporter Michael Winerip has a fascinating profile of Joseph Ponte, the new correction commissioner appointed by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. A former corrections chief in Maine, Ponte will now be responsible for running one of the country's largest and most notorious correctional systems. Ponte's agenda for that system, the story notes, centers on curbing the mistreatment of inmates "by reducing the use of solitary confinement, overhauling mental health care, and welcoming advocates and reporters into the prisons." And while Ponte does not officially start work until Monday, his plans have already earned him a very powerful enemy from the ranks of organized labor. As the Times explains,
even before starting his new job Mr. Ponte was under attack by the longtime president of the correction officer union, Norman Seabrook, who is considered one of the most powerful union leaders in the state. Mr. Seabrook wants more punitive segregation of inmates, not less. He believes many inmates pull stunts like drooling all over themselves to fake mental illness and stay out of solitary confinement ("bing beaters"). And the last people he wants to see on the Rikers cellblocks patrolled by his rank and file members are advocates talking to prisoners, who, he says, will lie to them anyway.
Mr. Seabrook said Mayor Bill de Blasio made a big mistake bringing in someone who oversaw a rural prison system to run Rikers, one of the country's toughest city jails.
"Bad move," he said.
This is not the first time a prison guards union has opposed reform and thrown its weight behind harsh measures—and it won't be the last. As Reason TV reported in October 2012, California's powerful Correction Peace Officer's Association has been "unrelenting in its advocacy for tough-on-crime laws, including California Three Strikes, under which any third-time felon can receive a 25-year to life sentence, even if the crime is not a violent, 'serious felony.'" Why? Because, as Adrian Moore, vice president of Research at the Reason Foundation, pointed out in the video, "[the unions] are following their own self-interest, which is to have the prison system in California continue to be large and to grow over time, and they have been very successful at that."
Time will tell if Seabrook and his union allies in New York City will be equally successful as they fight the new correction commissioner's attempts at reform.
Watch Reason TV's "Crowded Prisons, Unions, and California Three Strikes" below.