Obama Ignores Destructive Influence of Prison Unions in HBO Appearance

By Will Swaim
November 9, 2016

Comedian Bill Maher landed an interview with President Barack Obama last week, and the interaction felt like something out of a movie about hobbits – two grown men basking in the warm glow of a be-flagged White House office with a Frederick Remington buffalo sculpture in the background.

But if we were mesmerized it was because we weren’t listening closely. The key moment came at 4:38 of the interview, when the president briefly described his position on the concept of private prisons:

To me, I think there is a pretty bright line around prisons. I agree with you that the criminal justice system should not be infected by the profit motive. This is the awesome power of the state – saying we can take somebody’s freedom away. We can lock them up because they’ve breached some part of the social contract. The notion that you might incentivize people to lock more people in? Or keep them there longer? Or not provide the kind of rehab services so that they can get out of there. I think that’s a problem, and so I’m proud of the kind of work we’ve done along these lines.

You don’t have to like the idea of privatized prisons to see how much is wrong with the president’s comment – namely his assumption that government-run prisons aren’t “infected by the profit motive.” Ignore for a moment the idea that the “profit motive” is an infection, or that market forces don’t prevail just because we don’t want them to. But consider more closely the president’s remarkable ignorance about how American prisons actually run. California’s, for instance, are controlled by the profit-seeking California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

“The growth of California’s incarceration system, and the decline of its quality, tracks the accession to power of the state’s prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association,” writes Tim Kowal in one of the best analyses of the union. “The CCPOA has played a significant role in advocating pro-incarceration policies and opposing pro-rehabilitative policies in California.”

Kowal’s history makes it clear that the union’s role has been to protect and serve the interest of the union. In 1990, the CCPOA spent over $80,000 against state Sen. John Vasconcellos because the Santa Clara Democrat had led opposition to a prison-building bond. In 1994, the union supported the Three Strikes law. The union gave Pete Wilson $1.5 million. Wilson subsequently vetoed pay raises for most state workers, but not CCPOA. In 1998, the union gave $2.1 million to Gray Davis’s gubernatorial campaign – and $3 million more to Davis during his time in office. When lawmakers proposed an experiment in alternative sentencing, the union opposed that too – and Davis vetoed it. Substance abuse treatment, halfway houses, home detention: the union opposes anything that might reduce the prison population or provide rehabilitation. New prison construction, additional guard positions, mandatory sentencing, higher pay: the union has backed anything that increases the power of the union.

And a word about their income: over 1200 corrections employees earn over $100,000 per year in retirement, a survey of government data shows. To earn that sort of income, you’d have to invest more than $3 million at 3%. These men and women are rightly called millionaires.

Read Kowal’s piece yourself for more detail. It’s a catalogue of the myriad ways in which the CCPOA has deployed what the president called “the awesome power of the state” on behalf of the narrow interests of its wealthy members. Just think: For $45,000, the price of sending one kid to an Ivy League college for a year, we can instead send a Californian to prison for a year – all that expense and no rehabilitation, plus wrecked families, gutted neighborhoods, a Soviet-style post-prison surveillance system, and a government union that has leashed in Republican and Democrat lawmakers and governors alike.

We’re left wondering whether the president – an undeniably bright man – has just huge gaps in his curiosity about economics, or, more darkly, has pledged his to support anything that calls itself a union.

Will Swaim is acting president of the California Policy Center.

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