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Undue Influence: the power of Police and Prison Guards’ Unions


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Officers form a line during a Port of Oakland Occupy Rally. Photo by Irene Florez

Police officers and prison guards hold tremendous political sway. Their unions support or opposition can make or break a campaign for office. And their advocacy for better pay, more power, and more jobs has been a major factor in the expansion of the prison industrial complex. For decades, they’ve helped build America’s build America’s criminal justice system. Now that system is changing. Can law enforcement unions change as well?

The program was produced with support from The Puffin Foundation.


Patrick Lynch, NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president; Chuck Alexander, California Correctional Peace Officers Association vice president; Pat Quinn, governor of Illinois; Jerry Brown, governor of California; Dan Macallair, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice executive director; Darius Charney, Center for Constitutional Rights staff attorney; Rick Hilliard, Southern Illinois Central Labor Council business manager; Alex Friedmann, Prison Legal News associate editor; Leroy Gadsen, New York NAACP Legal Redress Committee Esq. Chair; Eric Adams, New York State Senator; Elizabeth Crowley, NYC City Council member and former Congressional candidate; Howard Wooldridge, Citizens Opposing Prohibition lobbyist; Carlton Berkeley, Retired NYPD Detective; Jonathan Simon, University of California at Berkeley Law professor; Harriet Salarno, Crime Victims United president and founder; Kirk Dutton, AFSCME Local 31 vice president;

transcripts below



California’s Prison Guard Union-How a ‘Model’ Union Rose to Power
Support, or opposition from a prison guard union can make or break a campaign for office. The most powerful of them all is the California Correctional and Peace Officers Association, or CCPOA, which over the past few decades, has played a significant role in the expansion of the entire nations prison system. JoAnn Mar has this report on the rise of CCPOA, how this ‘model’ prison guard union became a political force to be reckoned with.

Stop and Frisk—How’s NYC Police Union criminalizes New Yorkers
Similar to prison guards, police unions advocacy for their members has helped perpetuate cycles of criminalization and incarceration that plague America’s low income neighborhoods, especially communities of color. New York City’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is the biggest, and of the most powerful in the country, But as Jaisal Noor reports, recent controversy over a law enforcement tool called ‘stop and frisk’ has exposed some cracks in the union, and may be opening the door for reform.

How Private Prisons Are Changing the Game
An interview with Prison Legal News Associate Editor Alex Friedmann on how Private Prison companies use their power to stifle criminal justice reform

TRANSCRIPT: California’s Prison Guard Union-How a ‘Model’ Union Rose to Power
Similar to prison guards, police unions advocacy for their members has helped perpetuate cycles of criminalization and incarceration that plague America’s low income neighborhoods, especially communities of color. New York City’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is the biggest, and of the most powerful in the country, But as Jaisal Noor reports, recent controversy over a law enforcement tool called ‘stop and frisk’ has exposed some cracks in the union, and may be opening the door for reform.

During its rise to power, the California Correctional and Peace Officers Association, CCPOA, has become a magnet for controversy.  The union has gotten a lot of bad press during the past decade.  It’s been called ruthless, intimidating, aggressive, and powerful, by its detractors.  Supporters praise CCPOA for its strong advocacy on behalf of prison guards.  What is undisputed is CCPOA’s key role in the state’s explosive prison expansion.

CCPOA started in 1957 as a small prison guards union.  But it wasn’t until 1980, when Don Novey became president, that the union began to resemble the power house it’s become..  Novey was a savvy and ambitious leader and during his tenure, CCPOA’s membership quadroupled; from 7500 in 1985 to over 30,000 today.  And coinciding with the union’s rise in power and wealth, was the public’s deep fear of crime in the 80’s and 90’s.  Jonathan Simon is a professor of law at U.C. Berkeley and an expert on mass incarceration.  He says CCPOA made the strategic decision to join the tough-on-crime bandwagon.

SIMON:”And what they ended up doing basically was defining themselves not primarily as workers but  as essentially victims, kind of the symbolic stand-in for all of the potential crime victims in the state.  There was a lot of conflict going on in prisons.  And so prison officers were able to in a sense embrace that and say ‘we’re the victims of criminals, we know how criminals think and how to handle them, so let’s get rid of all these rehabilitative-oriented correctional elites and put victims, and that means correctional officers, first.'”

VIDEO EXCERPT: “California’s maximum security prisons house some of the most violent inmates in the world, making it the toughest beat in the state.”)

JM:  Under Novey, CCPOA launched a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, promoting the image of prison guards as gritty professionals who walk “the toughest beat in the state.”  In the early 90’s, CCPOA also entered into a strategic alliance with two victims rights groups.  Crime Victims United started out as a small political action committee, funded almost entirely by CCPOA.  Together, they pushed a tough-on-crime agenda that included longer prison sentences and harsher penalties.  They strongly backed the “three strikes” initiative in 1994, which passed by over 70 percent of the vote.  Both groups endorse candidates, make campaign contributions, and lobby legislators.  Harriet Salarno is president and founder of Crime Victims United.  She can often be found wandering the corridors of the state capitol.

SALARNO: “We’re there every day.  We have a full time lobbyist.  You need to be there at the capitol.  The legislators need to know who we are.  I mean, we work very hard.  Our organization doesn’t just sign on a bill because an assemblyman or a senator asks us to support them.  We read them, we study them, we have them analyzed by attorneys.  It takes a lot of research work before we decide which bills to support because on the average each year, they come out with three thousand bills.  That’s a lot of work.”

JM:  The national anthem opens the annual victims rights march and rally held every year at the state capitol in Sacramento.  The gathering is sponsored by CCPOA and Crime Victims United.  Prominent politicians from both sides of the aisle are in attendance, including California Governor Jerry Brown, who accepted an award from CCPOA in 2008 when he was then the state’s attorney general.

BROWN:“Thanks for the plaque.  I take it as a challenge to do more and to never rest until this state is truly safe.  Thank you ….”)

MACALLAIR:”Given our current system, it’s a little much to expect that someone’s going to go up against these groups.  Sometimes individual legislators did, but they did it at their own peril.  Because the next time you ran, you may have a multi-million dollar campaign waged against you.”

JM:  Dan Macallair is executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a prison reform advocacy organization.  (To Actuality 4)

MACALLAIR:”When district attorneys would bring cases against guards who were accused of abusing inmates, yeah they would go after them.  They went after the district attorney in Del Norte county and the district attorney in King’s county.  One of them they defeated.  They did a mail campaign right up at the end and essentially accused him of being a coddler of criminals and a criminal sympathizer.  That message was not lost on district attorneys at the local level.”

JM:  Few politicians wanted to appear “soft-on-crime” for fear of losing elections.  In the 80’s and 90’s, the California state legislature passed over a thousand bills imposing longer prison terms and more punitive sentences.  The prison population exploded and at its peak, rose from 25,000 prisoners in 1980 to over 170,000 in 2006.  The beefed-up CCPOA has used its clout and powerful lobby to fight aggressively for its members.  It won favorable contracts year after year, guaranteeing steady wage increases and generous pension benefits.  Prison reform advocate Dan Macallair says even in bad years, CCPOA could count on recieving a raise..

MACALLAIR: “In his last year in office, Gray Davis, when the state was in a recession and virtually every other area of state government was taking cuts, the CCPOA was awarded a 33 percent increase in wages.  That’s where they got it up to $70,000 in six years.  They make more than double the average prison guard’s salary around the country.”

JM:  With California’s prisons at 200 percent over capacity by 2004, conditions became unmanageable and intolerable.  Double and triple bunking in day rooms and gymnasiums were a common sight.  The prison system had become so overcrowded that Department of Corrections officials were unable to provide prisoners with adequate medical care.  Reports of widespread prisoner abuse and excessive force by corrections officers started to surface.  After years of litigation, federal district court judge Thelton Henderson found that Pelican Bay State Prison was the site of “a pattern of needless and officially sanctioned brutality.”  In his 1995 decision, Judge Henderson referred to “a code of silence”, designed to discourage witnesses and whistle blowers from speaking out.

SIMON: “One of the things that is just shocking to read that case now is, here you have a federal judge who said ‘I was being lied to by correctional officers.’”

JM:  U.C. Berkeley professor of law Jonathan Simon.

SIMON:”And he describes a detail there that is still kind of amazing to read about where he went to Pelican Bay to visit and witnessed a riot which he then learned had been arranged by the correctional officers to intimidate him and put the word in his mind that they needed to do whatever they needed to do to keep these animals in place.  If you read through lines of the medical case itself, this is in some ways just as shocking as the blue code of silence, which is how much prison officers were involved in essentially intentionally disregarding the health needs of prisoners—overriding doctors’ recommendations or nurses’ recommendations, preventing prisoners from getting health care to begin with.  And one of the things we need to do as a state is come to grips with the fact that we were essentially conducting a torture regime in our prisons and we’ve never even begun to have a truth and reconciliation commission or a process to say who’s accountable, who’s responsible, how did it happen?”

JM:  During the past decade, the public’s fear of crime has started to recede.  The economic recession and California’s budget woes have now displaced crime as the public’s number one fear.  The state’s billion dollar deficits mean that CCPOA can no longer count on the government for favorable contracts and the generous wage hikes of the past.  Last year’s The Supreme Court’s 2011 decision requiring reductions in prison overcrowding may signal signals the end of the prison expansion era.  In response to this changing landscape, CCPOA’s positions on criminal justice policies have also dramatically shifted.  Unlike its tough-on-crime stance of the past, CCPOA now supports prison reform—it has taken positions in favor of sentencing and parole reform, reductions in overcrowding, and rehabilitation.

ALEXANDER:“We have been so demonized by outside groups.  See, I don’t have horns or a tail.  I’m a regular person.  I like to think I’m indicative of the membership we represent.”

JM:  Chuck Alexander is vice president of CCPOA.  He represents CCPOA’s new leadership since the retirement of Don Novey in 2002.  Following California’s big prison build-up, the overcrowded conditions have become dangerous and unsafe for corrections officers.  Alexander says workplace safety is now a top concern for the union.

ALEXANDER:”To get away from this warehousing is going to make it better for our members.  Because walking in a gym with three or four hundred inmates and all you have is yourself and your wit and maybe one partner.  That’s not a good work environment for our members.  And it’s very stressful.  We’ve got nothing to lose by trying something different and everything to gain.  Let’s see if some of them are rehabilitatable.  We’re there—let’s give it a shot.”

SOUND FROM AD: “Corcoran State Prison—home to some of California’s most dangerous inmates” followed by collage of guards “They’re victimizers, they victimize people/they just continued swinging/now they’re victimizers inside the institution/started defending myself/hit the officer with his right fist/spitting blood into my partner’s face/and he punched me with his right hand/hitting me in the chest, in the ribs ….”)

JM:  CCPOA’s own promotional videos have underlined the dangerous conditions inside prisons and the hazards faced by corrections officers.  To alleviate address overcrowding, Governor Jerry Brown’s realignment plan will send  is sending thousands of state prisoners to county jails.  This shift will mean the need for fewer corrections officers, the possible closure of some prisons, and possible reductions in CCPOA’s membership.  Dan Macallair with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice says CCPOA is now facing a temporary setback, perhaps a small bump in the road

“I think some of their power and influence was inevitably going to diminish, just simply because of the reality.  Part of it is, it’s a different era.  I think what’s happening now is that they’re suffering from their successes of the late 1980’s, and the 1990’s.  They achieved everything they thought they wanted, but they did it at great cost.  They did it at the cost of working conditions for their members.  They did it at a significant cost to the state, to the state budget—it was just simply not sustainable.  And the new leadership is left to pick up the pieces.”

JM:  Despite recent setbacks, the Caifornia Correctional and Peace Officers Association is not going away any time soon .  Whether CCPOA remains on the path of prison reform will depend on what future direction it chooses to take.  The hope of prison reform advocates is that the next generation of corrections officers will want to be more than just prison guards.  Perhaps they can perform a more constructive, supportive role and make a positive difference in the lives of prisoners.  At least, that’s the hope.  For Making Contact, I’m JoAnn Mar

TRANSCRIPT: Stop and Frisk—How’s NYC Police Union criminalizes New Yorkers
Similar to prison guards, police unions advocacy for their members has helped perpetuate cycles of criminalization and incarceration that plague America’s low income neighborhoods, especially communities of color. New York City’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is the biggest, and of the most powerful in the country, But as Jaisal Noor reports, recent controversy over a law enforcement tool called ‘stop and frisk’ has exposed some cracks in the union, and may be opening the door for reform.


JAISAL NOOR: On June 17th, 2012 over 15,000 New Yorkers- including labor, religious and community groups took part in a silent march to protest Stop and Frisk. The controversial practice empowers police to stop and search anyone they believe looks suspicious. But critics say its used to racially profile – blacks and Latinos made up 90% of the nearly 700,000 stop and frisks that took place in 2011..

GADSEN: “What we are against is the NYPD who have created an unconstitutionally blatant form of discrimination in their attempt to resolve and prevent crime in our communities.

JN:Leroy Gadsen is legal chair of the NAACP’s New York branch, a professor of criminal justice at Queensborough Community College and helped organize the march.

GADSEN:“When ever you have a productive relationship between police and the community what will happen is you will have a decrease in crime. We don’t have that in south east Queens. The average young person, they hate the police.”

JN: Also taking part was New York State Senator Eric Adams. A retired NYPD captain, he’s long been leading critic of police policy and helped launch the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care

ADAMS: “What the higher ups, particularly Police Commissioner Kelly has done in New York City- he has told his camp commanders and rank and file, that you are no longer going to use it just to use it to determine whether someone is committing a crime, or has committed a crime, you are going to use it to gather the names, and personal information of as many black and Hispanics as possible. In essence that’s what they are doing. And that’s what makes it wrong.”

JN: In response to the growing opposition to Stop and Frisk, the largest union representing New York City police, the powerful Patrolman’s Benevolent Association or PBA has publicly backed the policy. The union’s influence was on display during its endorsement of Congressional candidate Elizabeth Crowley in the Democratic primary. Crowley seemed caught off guard when reporters repeatedly questioned her about her position on Stop and Frisk, Then, PBA President Patrick Lynch whispered to Crowley quote “support it as a tool”. The embarrassing incident was caught on camera.

CROWLEY: “The least we could do is have some gratitude, and be grateful for the work they do.
REPORTER: So you do or don’t support it as a policy?
Patrick Lynch: Support it as a tool
CROWLEY: Can you state your question again?
REPORTER: Do you support just the concept of stop and frisk ?
CROWLEY: I believe our police officers stop when they suspect that there is somebody out there that is up to …no good.

JN:But while the PBA defends Stop and Frisk, even it has clashed with police leadership over the policy’s implementation.  PBA president Lynch alleges the police department illegally sets quotas for stops and punishes officers who fail to reach them.

LYNCH:“The problem is when its made into a numbers game. If anything summonses or Stop and Frisks. if you put a quota or a certain number, it ruins that tool.”

JN: For some, the union’s failure to end those quotas demonstrates the limits of its power.  Others, like State Senator Adams, who is often critical of the union — praises its stance on quotas as a positive development.

ADAMS:“To his credit PBA press Patrick Lynch realized that this is bad policy, for his members. And that’s the first step to move towards true reform. Because denial of the bad policy like the mayor police commissioners is doing – you can’t really move towards reform.”

JN: Some civil rights advocates, like Darius Charney, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says the union stance on quotas does not address the bigger problems with New York law enforcement.

CHARNEY: “I think quotas are definitely a big part of it, its by no means the entire source of the problem.”

JN: Charney, who is representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Stop and Frisks, -says the police department needs a strong oversight body.

CHARNEY: “When you combine this huge incentive just do stops at all costs, with the fact that there’s no consequences if you do them illegally it really creates a recipe for widespread violation of constitutional rights. And the accountability piece the union, I think is not going to get behind, to put it mildly. “

JN: Critics like Charney also say Stop and Frisks have resulted in  skyrocketing numbers  of drug arrests. Although possessing a small amount of marijuana out of public view is a non jail-able offense, once an officer stops, frisks, and asks someone to empty their pockets, and marijuana comes out—its classified as in public view.  in 2011 more than 50,000 mostly Black and Latino   New Yorkers were arrested for possession. The racial disparity of such arrests, in New York and across the country, is one reason retired police detective Howard Wooldridge became a leading advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana. Now a lobbyist with the group Citizens Opposing Prohibition, Wooldridge says his main opponents in Congress are police and prison guards unions.

WOOLDRIDGE: That’s been my primary opposition in Washington, the law enforcement lobby.

JN: Wooldridge argues his former union, the Fraternal Order of Police, oppose legalization because it would result in budget cuts to law enforcement.

WOOLDRIDGE: if we ended this drug prohibition, tens of thousands of FOP members would be laid off,  certainly 10,000s would lose lots of overtime they make chasing the green plant, etc provided by the federal government or state governments for special narcotics units.

JN: Wooldridge says lobbyists for unions pressure politicians into supporting their positions.

WOOLDRIDGE: They – go into a congressman’s office, and simply say you need to support this house bill, this senate bill and gives us money to keep mandatory minimums going. If you don’t, we will tell the people back in your district, back in your state, you are soft on drugs, soft on crimes, and help you get defeated in your upcoming election.

JN: In New York, Retired NYPD Detective Carlton Berkeley says the ongoing the war on drugs and a lack of accountability for police are taking  a heavy toll on communities of color like the Bronx.

BERKLEY: If it was legalized, small amount, I would believe most of the people that are carrying it wouldn’t run from the police, wouldn’t fight the police, and maybe we can prevent these homicides -unnecessary and unjustified homicides as in Ramarley Graham’s case.

Crowd Chanting: “I am Ramarley “

JN: Rahmarley Graham was an 18 year old  African American teenager, who in February 2012 was shot dead  in his own home by a member of the NYPD’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit.  Police say  they believed Graham had a gun. No weapon was found, but police said they did find a bag of marijuana.

CROWD: We can’t get no justice no peace/ we don’t want those racist police”// “Lock up those racist police, fire those racist police”

JN: Berkely, a close friend of the Graham family, and a member of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, says the unit responsible for Graham’s death violated numerous protocols including unlawfully entering his house prior to his killing.

(Chanting)“Justice for Ramarley, Jail Richard Haste”

JN:The PBA, as they routinely do, strongly defended Richard Haste, the officer  who plead not guilty to manslaughter for killing Graham.. Berkely says this is part of the problem.

BERKELY: “Cops can do whatever they want because they say you know what my union is going to back me.”

JN:The city’s police unions have also long opposed or blocked efforts to increase police accountability. But after the police department was rocked by a series of scandals, the PBA’s best efforts could not prevent passage of a new agreement empowering independent prosecutors to investigate police misconduct.  But critics credit union lobbying with helping to water down the reforms, and say they won’t address the systemic racism within the police department.

BERKELY: “Right now the community feels its a losing battle every time the situation like this happens. and you know what I feel the same way. And I’m a retired 20 year veteran. And i know for a fact if the PBA, DEA, all these unions within NYPD, because they are very strong, they are very powerful,

JN: Independent police oversight, electing a new mayor in 2014, and challenging stop and frisk in court are some of the parallel strategies grassroots groups are taking in New York City.  There’s agreement on one thing–  it will take a true mass movement to make the NYPD, and their union, accountable to those they are sworn to protect and serve.

For Making Contact, I’m Jaisal Noor.

For more information:

Prison Legal News
Private Corrections Working Group
100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care
Ramarley’s Call: The official Website to remember Ramarley Graham
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
CCPOA California Correctional Peace Officers Association
CCA- Corrections Corporation of America
The GEO Group
NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association
Crime Victims United
Center for Constitutional Rights
Citizens Opposing Prohibition
Jonathan Simon
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
Southern Illinois Central Labor Council
NAACP New York State Conference
Ney York Police Department
Jerry Brown
Human Rights Defense Center

Articles, Reports, Photos, Videos:

Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies.
Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration
Unholy Alliance-How the private prison industry is corrupting our democracy and promoting mass incarceration
Unionizing Prison Guards in an Age of Mass Incarceration by Brian Tierney
Correcting the Guards-Why the shaky relationship between organized labor and correctional officers is doubly harmful to the American left. By Adam Doster
Ex-Con Shareholder Goes After World’s Biggest Prison Corporation
Officials rally to fight prison closures in Illinois
Marchers Demand Justice for Ramarley Graham
Prison Industries: “Don’t Let Society Improve or We Lose Business”

Nas, “New York State of Mind II”
Cunninglynguists, “Mic Like a Memory”


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