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The Weekly Abolitionist: Prison Guard Unions vs. Private Prison Contractors

In a comment on last week’s post on The Labor Politics of Prisons, Steve Robinson said that my discussion of guards unions was “interesting given past posts about the for-profit prison industry.” He noted that while prison guard unions push for increased incarceration, they also are generally harmed by prison privatization, as private prison contractors have incentives to minimize labor costs and maximize profits. A scenario where public sector unions are pushing for many of the same policy goals as corporations that could eliminate their jobs certainly “presents an interesting coalition,” as Steve put it.

This got me thinking about the relationship between different interest groups in shaping criminal justice policies. I had previously thought of prison guards unions, police unions, and private prison companies as basically the same. They are interest groups that benefit from incarceration and the criminal justice system’s coercive power, and accordingly they will engage in rent seeking to increase incarceration and related coercive powers. But while this is true, I don’t think it tells the whole story. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to be explored here.

For example, sometimes we see direct confrontation between these interest groups. In 1997, the California prison guards union strongly opposed the Corrections Corporation of America’s plans to open a 2,000 bed for-profit prison in California. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time:

The plan drew criticism from the politically connected California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents prison guards.

“This guy’s full of bull,” declared Don Novey, president of the union. “Public safety should not be for profit. It’s just kind of stupid.”

Novey insisted that his opposition is not based on the prospect of losing union membership to a private firm. “When you start privatizing public safety, it’s a big mistake,” he said.

One of the most powerful prison guard unions in the country directly faced off against the largest operator of for-profit prisons in the country. If only these interest groups could spend more of their resources like this, fighting over who will control the spoils of mass incarceration rather than demanding the system’s expansion.

One intriguing and somewhat counter-intuitive possibility is that competition between guards unions and private firms may result in less advocacy overall for increased incarceration. In 2008, Alexander Volokh published an article in the Stanford Law Review that contended “privatization may well reduce the industry’s political power: Because advocacy is a “public good” for the industry, as the number of independent actors increases, the dominant actor’s advocacy can decrease (since it no longer captures the full benefit of its advocacy) and the other actors may free ride off the dominant actor’s contribution.” Volokh presents an interesting economic argument for why competition between guards unions and for-profit contractors might create a collective action problem that decreases the total amount of advocacy for increased imprisonment.

It seems plausible to me, however, that specialization may result in increased advocacy in particular areas, such as immigration policy. While influencing federal immigration laws is not likely to be worthwhile for guards unions that work mostly with state prison guards, it is worthwhile for firms like GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, both of which receive lucrative contracts to operate immigration detention centers. And because ICE is still directly involved with the detention centers whether they are “privately” operated or not, it seems unlikely that ICE would compete with CCA and GEO Group the way the California Correctional Peace Officers Association does.

Both guards’ unions and prison profiteers face perverse incentives, but in different ways. Prison profiteering firms are often seen cutting corners in order to cut costs. For example, Corizon is paid to provide healthcare to prisoners, and avoids providing care whenever they can cut costs by doing so. This desire to cut costs is not seen from public employee unions. But the public employee unions face different perverse incentives, largely related to protecting their members from accountability. For example, in Maryland the guards’ union successfully lobbied for “the passage of the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights, which made it much harder to discipline bad correctional officers — thus reducing C.O.s’ accountability and facilitating brutality and corruption scandals,” as Alexander Volokh explained at the Washington Post.

Exploring the relationships among interest groups that influence criminal law gets more interesting and more complicated as we introduce more players. Civil liberties groups like the ACLU are generally opposed to the guards unions, the prison profiteers, and the rest of the law enforcement lobby. However, they occasionally support policies that increase incarceration, such as hate crimes laws. The way pressure from the law enforcement lobby and the civil liberties lobby interact to shape the criminal justice system has been explored in some interesting ways by Bruce Benson in The Enterprise of Law. Crime victims advocacy groups also often push for new criminal laws and act to shape the system in important ways.

These relationships among interest groups are fascinating to me, and I think they can tell us a lot about the prison system. I hope to explore these issues further in future posts.

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