[Pnews] Police Unions’ Opposition to Prison Reform Is About More Than Jobs — It’s About Racism

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 15 13:07:19 EDT 2018


  Police Unions’ Opposition to Prison Reform Is About More Than Jobs —
  It’s About Racism

Natasha Lennard - August 14, 2018
_In its first_ few seconds, a new television advertisement 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hd_xrMFWwlw&feature=youtu.be> targeting 
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to be an appeal for increased funding 
for public education. “Governor Cuomo is shortchanging our kids,” the 
short video begins. “In New York state, our classrooms are overcrowded 
and outdated.” This, however, is not a message from the state’s teachers 
unions, nor is it a campaign effort from gubernatorial challenger 
Cynthia Nixon. In fact, the ad is not about education at all.

Fifteen seconds in, the ad’s true intent is revealed: “Instead of taking 
care of our children, the governor’s radical agenda takes care of 
criminals.” The video is part of a six-figure TV, radio, digital, and 
outdoor advertisement campaign launched last month by the New York State 
Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, or NYSCOPBA, 
with the aim, according to a union statement, “to put public safety 
before primary party politics this campaign season.”

The ad blitz is the latest cynical propaganda effort by a major law 
enforcement union to stymie and demonize prison reform by drawing on 
menacing and unsubstantiated claims that frame “dangerous criminals” as 
irredeemable threats — people that are apart from and in conflict with 
“the public.”

The campaign asks the public to call the governor’s office and urge him 
to reverse its criminal justice reform policies, including giving 35,000 
parolees the right to vote and providing prisoners with tablet 
computers. Like fellow New York law enforcement union, the New York City 
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the NYSCOPBA campaign decried 
parole reform that has assisted the release on parole of elderly 
prisoners, convicted decades ago, as “cop killers.”

    “These ads constitute a step in the ongoing campaign of the police
    organizations to overturn hard-won gains in decreasing mass

“These ads constitute a step in the ongoing campaign of the police 
organizations to overturn hard-won gains in decreasing mass 
incarceration, improving the treatment of incarcerated people, and 
reducing New York’s reliance on punishment in place of social programs,” 
said Laura Whitehorn, an organizer with the project Release Aging People 
in Prison and a former political prisoner. “These gains now sit squarely 
in the crosshairs of the NYSCOPBA ad campaign.”

The recent steps forward for advocates of prison reform — including 
the use of solitary confinement for young people, increasing the parole 
of people who pose low or no risk to public safety, and prohibiting 
the charging of young people as adults — represent, as Whitehorn noted, 
“massive efforts by communities around New York state who have 
traditionally had little access to the power wielded by the police 
unions.” NYSCOPBA cites Cuomo’s “radical agenda,” but the governor’s 
moderate and reasonable criminal justice reforms have been the result of 
years of applied activism and pressure.

_Campaigns like NYSCOPBA’s_ — straight from the playbook of law 
enforcement union lobbying — go far beyond advocacy for union members’ 
well-being, wages, and job security. They seek to reinscribe the myth of 
the criminal “other” — people deserving only of punishment and 
exclusion. It is the carceral logic through which law enforcement 
continues to find justification for its authority.

Correctional officer and police unions have an obvious interest in 
opposing criminal justice reform when it comes to officer accountability 
and discipline — and with making sure that the criminal justice system 
keeps catching people in its maw: When prisons close, prison guards lose 
jobs. Law enforcement unions have for decades weaponized consistently 
racist narratives of criminal threats — threats that require management 
and punishment — to support policies that uphold mass incarceration.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which spends 
about $8 million per year on lobbying, poured 
$100,000 into supporting the state’s 1994 “three strikes” laws and over 
$1 million to beat 
Prop 66 in 2016, which would have reduced the number of crimes that 
carry mandatory life sentences. The union spent 
nearly $2 million supporting Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign, 
extracting support for prison expansions in return.

In Illinois, the state’s largest public-sector union waged a campaign 
with law-and-order politicians against the closure 
in 2013 of Tamms Correctional Center, a notorious Supermax prison. The 
campaign described the people locked up in Tamms as “the worst of the 
worst” in an attempt to justify the prison’s existence and vindicate its 
well-documented brutality.

But often these campaigns — like NYSCOPBA’s — go beyond veiled appeals 
for continued job security to focus squarely on opposing greater rights 
and better treatment for prisoners and former prisoners. Among the 
policies named by NYSCOPBA, for example, is Cuomo’s decision this year 
to grant 35,000 parolees 
the right to vote. “NYSCOPBA remains concerned that this will allow 
murderers, rapists, and sex offenders to enter polling sites in schools, 
community centers, and other places we designate as safe spaces for 
children, families, and seniors,” said Matt Hamilton, the union’s 
director of public affairs, in a statement. Similarly, the union opposes 
the plan to supply 51,000 incarcerated people with computer tablets 
“Concerns about whether inmates would be able to hack these devices to 
do things they are not permitted must be taken seriously,” Hamilton said.

The NYC Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association deployed a similar 
logic last week to disavow a new law that would allow incarcerated 
people in New York City jails to use phones there for free. “Now the 
gangs will definitely be able to continue to run their operations from 
inside the jails,” Elias Husamudeen, the union’s president, told 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/06/nyregion/phone-calls-free-nyc-jails.html> the 
New York Times. “They will definitely be able to continue to communicate 
free of charge with the other members of their gangs who may not be in 

_It’s not clear_ what the corrections officers’ union gains from its 
advocacy on issues like parolee enfranchisement and access to free 
technology. Suffice to say these campaigns are not legitimate appeals 
for public safety: Claims about gang organizing, hacking, and predators 
in polling booths are offered up without grounds and would only be 
believed by members of the public who already see prisoners as inherent 
dangers to society.

    In a country that conflates blackness with criminality, law
    enforcement narratives that equate criminality with evil are
    intractably racist.

Yet if law enforcement unions are driven by economic concerns for their 
workers, this drive is couched in and shaped by an almost theodicean 
narrative in which harsh criminal justice is vindicated as the 
management of evil. And, in a country that conflates blackness with 
criminality, law enforcement narratives that equate criminality with 
evil are also intractably racist. When the New York City Patrolmen’s 
Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch called Herman Bell an “animal 
after the former Black Panther was granted parole after over four 
decades in prison, we didn’t need to be dogs to hear that whistle.

If the conflict between law enforcement unions and prison reform rested 
only on the threat posed to certain jobs by closing prisons, there could 
be an opening for solidarity between prison workers, prisoners, and the 
broader labor movement. “Ultimately,” wrote historian and labor 
organizer Austin McCoy in a 2016 New Labor Forum paper 
<http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1095796016681558>, “it is 
likely that ensuring economic justice for prisoners and workers will 
require connecting advocacy for decarceration to the call for mass 
employment, or a universal job guarantee, which in turn would 
necessitate connecting movements against mass incarceration to the 
larger labor movement.”

But that’s not how it works out. Law enforcement unions are different 
from other public-sector unions, both in terms of their vast political 
clout at a time when organized labor in the U.S. is weak, and their 
historic, structural commitment to elevating “blue lives” at the expense 
of others, particularly black lives.

Law enforcement unions, therefore, are not simply barriers to criminal 
justice reform and decarceration because of economic concerns for their 
members. As their campaigns and rhetoric make clear, their commitment is 
not only to mass incarceration as a job provider, but to the system of 
racist oppression and unjust societal organization that these jobs uphold.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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