WHY OUTSOURCING PUBLIC SAFETY PUTS COMMUNITIES AT RISK
TEXT BY PABLO ROS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALEX KAZANAS
In August 2016, during the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice declared its intention to phase out its use of private detention facilities.
In a memo to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Sally Yates, then the deputy attorney general, wrote that she was “eager” to undertake this effort given that, compared to the government’s facilities, private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and … they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
While her announcement was rightly celebrated, it was also long overdue. AFSCME members have been calling for exactly that since the 1980s, when “tough-on-crime” laws first caused overcrowding in publicly run facilities and led to the rise of their private counterparts.
Private prisons are inherently corrupt enterprises that have no place in a fair and well-managed criminal justice system.
AFSCME’s opposition to private prisons dates back to the 1984 AFSCME International Convention in San Francisco, when delegates resolved to commit our union’s strength and resources to “combat the contracting out of correctional, parole and probation services and to force federal, state, and local governments to maintain their responsibilities for the incarceration and rehabilitation of those individuals who violate the laws of society.”
Our commitment to achieve those goals has been unwavering and continues to this day.
Since the rise of private prisons in the 1980s, AFSCME members have raised their union voice again and again in opposition to an immoral, for-profit industry that exploits human beings and puts workers and entire communities at risk.
AFSCME members approved resolutions opposing private prisons at International conventions in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2014 and 2016.
DID YOU KNOW?
When Donald Eric Davison first became a correctional officer, he felt overwhelmed.
“I tell new hires when I do new employee orientation: If you’re not scared during the course of commission of duties, you’re either naïve or you’re a fool. In other words, you should be aware of your environment and what can happen.”
“Your senses, both your physical and mental capacities, are overwhelmed with all the parameters of the job,” says Davison, who works at Warren Correctional Institution in Ohio, a publicly run facility.
Like many correctional officers, Davison is willing to put his life on the line for his community, but he also expects to come home to his family at the end of the day.
Laura Barnes, an AFSCME member who works at a state-run correctional facility in New Mexico, began her career in a prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies in the nation. She says private institutions fail to take safety seriously, endangering correctional officers, staff, and inmates alike.
“In the private prison setting, safety didn’t come first,” she says.
James Edenfield, a correctional captain with more than twenty years of experience at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana, was once attacked by an inmate who ripped a security camera out of the ceiling.
He says safety is always foremost on his mind and wouldn’t trust it to a private institution.
“Private companies are looking for a profit, not for the safety of their employees,” he says.
Private prisons are more dangerous than publicly run facilities.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice study covering federal prisons, violent attacks by inmates on correctional staff were 163% higher in private than in public prisons, and inmate-on-inmate assaults were nearly 30% higher.
The Union Difference
Public prisons are safer than their private counterparts in states where correctional staff have a strong voice on the job.
Davison, the Ohio correctional officer, points out that his local union, Chapter 8330 of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME Local 11, has 100% membership. This accomplishment, achieved through the AFSCME Strong program, means every single eligible person is currently a dues-paying member of the union by choice.
Edenfield, who is a member of AFSCME Local 2407 (Council 17), says his growing union has made a big difference.
“Our management is more willing to listen and more receptive to what we have to say,” he says. “We went from having 70 people in our union to close to 200. That sent a message.”
Barnes, who is a member of AFSCME Local 3422 (Council 18), knows the difference firsthand.
“I remember in the private setting being scared to challenge policy or challenge procedure because their rules and procedures changed all the time and nobody was allowed to say anything,” she says. “They did something one way this time and a different way another time, and if you got in trouble you had no recourse, no one to go to.”
Today, she adds, she has an altogether different relationship with her employer, a collaborative one in which she feels respected and heard.
Correctional officers in public prisons earn higher wages than their private counterparts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, correctional officers and jailers earn nearly 20% more, taking home $7,590 more annually.
DID YOU KNOW?
“I love the way things work with management now,” Barnes says. “When you’re part of a strong union, you walk into the warden’s office and they want to hear what you have to say, they want to talk policy. It’s really nice to have that kind of communication.”
In 2019, Nevada correctional officers helped lead the effort to secure collective bargaining rights for all state workers and were subsequently the first worker group to organize and form their local union.
Thanks to their growing strength, they also succeeded in pushing for a law that bans private prisons in the state.
DID YOU KNOW?
A TURNING POINT?
Just three months after the Obama administration announced a new course for federal incarceration, Donald Trump celebrated his electoral victory.
And so did for-profit prison companies and their stockholders.
Choosing privateers over entire communities, the Trump administration reversed the Obama decision to phase out private prisons. In doing so, it left a leadership vacuum that states are now trying to fill.
Thanks in part to AFSCME members making their voices heard, California, Nevada and Illinois have in just the last year passed or expanded laws to ban for-profit prisons, and other states, such as Colorado and Minnesota, have said they plan to follow suit.
New Mexico has taken over a private prison operated by The GEO Group and will insource those correctional jobs.
Other signs point to the waning of private prisons as we know them, including the decision by several major U.S. banks to divest or no longer finance these entities when current financial agreements expire.
Our union will continue to play a leading role in calling for the insourcing of private prison jobs and a strong voice in the workplace for everyone who works in corrections.
Being part of a strong union means higher wages and better benefits, but it also means the ability
to advocate for improvements in the workplace, including adequate staffing levels, better safety equipment and more control over working hours.
“My radio, for example, didn’t work in half the units and we weren’t issued OC [pepper] spray or staff vests. We didn’t have things to protect us. In the public sector we get those things, we get upgraded radios, stab-proof safety vests, OC spray. … It’s a safer environment.”
“I think that speaks to how important our union is in our workplace,” he says. “If you don’t have a system in place that allows you to directly address security and health and safety concerns on an even footing with management, your voice will never be heard.”
The case against private prisons has become even clearer since the outbreak of the coronavirus, which has spread to correctional institutions across the country and poses a grave threat to those within their close confines. To secure better working conditions and safety standards (like proper personal protective equipment), correctional officers and staff who are AFSCME members have relied on a voice on the job through their strong union, an option not available to those in private prisons.