Research bleg 2:

Well, my first research bleg kind of came up a bust, but maybe I'll have better luck on this one. My understanding is the prison guards union in California pushes for tougher criminal law. (1) Do prison guards unions do this in places other than California? (2) Are prison systems themselves, perhaps Departments of Corrections?, also active in lobbying for tougher criminal law or enforcement, either openly or behind the scenes?

Donald Kahn (mail):
I am not sure what the question is, but prison guards, of all people, are in the best position to know what criminality really is.
8.3.2006 10:45am
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
Thank you Donald. That was very helpful. Are there any other nonresponsive and irrelevant observations that you'd like to share?
8.3.2006 11:04am
Not Donald Kahn (mail):
I'm not sure what day it is, but prison guards get to wear really cool uniforms and neat shiny badges.
8.3.2006 11:08am
Donald Kahn (mail):
Sorry, old chap, but I repeat: "what is the question?" or perhaps better, "what is the point?"
8.3.2006 11:10am
AppSocRes (mail):
It's worth noting that correctional officers (prison and jail guards and probation and parole officers) perform a far more onerous and dangerous job than do police, since they are dealing with a far more concentrated population of malefactors than police can imagine even in their wildest nightmares and correctional officers usually perform this task unarmed and alone. Despite this guards and probation and parole officers are usually compensated at about half the rate of equivalent police forces.

Two cynical reasons corrections officers might lobby for harsher sentencing: (1) It ever so slightly dilutes the scumminess of the populations they deal with, since more intense enforcement sets a lower bar on the nastiness of those who will be incarcerated/supervised; and (2) More prisoners creates a greater demand for correctional officers which slightly increases the power of correctional unions.

However, my impression - gained from occassionally working on research with correctional officers - is that those guards and POs who are not burned out usually develop a definite sense that the public REALLY needs protection from the people they supervise and that the more of these people who are under correctional supervision the better. Constantly working with inmates gives one a real sense of how truly bad news most unincarcerated criminals are for ordinary citizens and how truly EVIL a significant minority are. If Norman Mailer's liberal hubris had not led him to ignore this knowledge, a promising young man might have grown into a talented writer.
8.3.2006 11:17am
BrianP (mail):
AppSocRes, are you familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment? See ; but in short, it's a population of college students randomly divided into guards and students. After just a few days, "Now, suddenly, it was no longer just an experiment, no longer a simple simulation. Instead, the guards saw the prisoners as troublemakers who were out to get them, who might really cause them some harm. In response to this threat, the guards began stepping up their control, surveillance, and aggression."

You may be correct on their motivations; but be careful in trusting their judgment.
8.3.2006 11:29am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Thanks, everyone. I'm not interested in whether prison guards or their unions are correct to favor stronger criminal law or enforcement. I'm just interested in the two factual questions I raised. Responsive comments, please, from people who know something about the politics of the situation!
8.3.2006 11:31am
PaulV (mail):
As Gordon Liddy said "prison guard choose to live behind bars and associate with prisoners"
8.3.2006 12:02pm
Working in corrections for any period of time definitely tends to give you a "they're all guilty" mindset, for better or for worse.

I have a cousin who is a prison guard and I'll try to see if he has any helpful information.
8.3.2006 12:18pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
the prison guards union in California pushes for tougher criminal law

Well, as long as we're being nonresponsive ... of course they do. Like they want to be put out of work?
8.3.2006 12:19pm
Conrad (mail):
For what its worth, I actually used the example of corrections' officer association lobbying to make a point in a paper I wrote several years ago. I cited California as an example and recall spending a bit of time online looking examples from other states, without success.

However, it was a tangetial point, so I didn't spend enough time chasing it down to say definitively that California is unique in this respect. However, it was clear from my limited research that, if such lobbying occurs in other states, nowhere is it as widespread or intense as in California.

I assume you are already aware of Justice Kennedy's comments to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference this year when he called such lobbying "sick".
8.3.2006 12:27pm
Well, as long as we're being nonresponsive ... of course they do. Like they want to be put out of work?

I don't think that's obvious at all. It's not like our prisons are in danger of becoming empty under current sentencing laws.

Tougher sentencing would tend to increase overcrowding. That could be good for prison guards if it gets new prisons built, it could also be bad if it endangers their safety. It would be interesting to find out if there's a consensus among unions nationwide.
8.3.2006 12:44pm
Donald Kahn (mail):
Politics of the situation, yeah, right. Here's some advice: assume that their expression of opinion is based on a desire to promote the general welfare. Until proved otherwise.
8.3.2006 12:50pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I was an attorney for Louisiana's governor a few years ago, and I often worked on criminal justice issues, and met regularly with Department of Corrections officials on criminal justice, pardon, and parole issues.

My experience was that our Corrections officials really wanted to get more people out of their prisons. The budget pressuers on them are enormous. Even more than most states, I suspect, Louisiana hates to spend tax money on prisons, so our Corrections officers are paid very low. Combine that with miserable working conditions, and you've got a recipe for very high turn-over and constant recruitment issues.

Also, I found that many of our wardens would develop almost a soft spot for inmates, at least the ones who behaved themselves. Several times, a warden would chime in favorable on an inmate's application for clemency. I would always ask, did you know that they did X, Y, and Z? The answer was always nope, and never mind then. They focused, as they must, on the inmate's behavior in prison, not what he did to get there.

Several times, I observed Corrections working closely with members of the black caucus in our legislature to hammer out the details of early release policies, such as for non-violent drug offenders and elderly, ill inmates. Corrections' concerns were generally to make sure that a policy was going to practical and wouldn't leave them holding the bag if the released inmate committed more crimes, and they wanted to protect their level of funding.

As a political force, Corrections really didn't have a strong position one way or the other on such matters. They would generally side with the DAs and the Sheriffs, but mostly out of political convenience or inertia than anything else, I think; they weren't the driving force.

Sasha, I'd be happy to provide you whatever information I can to help; e-mail me to discuss it more.

P.S. The real political force for higher rates of imprisonment here are local sheriffs. When the state prisons are too full (always the case), the overflow are sent to local jails, with the state paying a per diem. That's a real money-maker for the local sheriffs, and there was a lot of lobbying over funding for new local jails, and who got how many prisoners. Lobbying for tougher sentences (not that our legislature needs much lobbying for that) was a win-win for sheriffs. More criminals off the street, for longer periods of time, and more money for the sheriff to hire more deputies and buy fancy equipment to play with.
8.3.2006 1:14pm
In most states the prison guards belong to the state employee union.
8.3.2006 1:14pm

P.S. The real political force for higher rates of imprisonment here are local sheriffs.

That is somewhat true, although most local jails across the country do not have room for overflow from the state prisons. However private prisons do benefit greatly as do states with excess capacity as other states pay them to house prisoners.
8.3.2006 1:27pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Our jails have expanded heavily to enable them to hold more state prisoners, SeaLawyer. The urban ones are crowded, but the rural ones (Louisiana is heavily rural) often have plenty of room. Increasing the financial pressure, the local jail expansions were generally paid for by bond issues, which means that, as a practical matter, the state has to send enough prisoners there for the locals to pay off the bonds, lest the state be on the hook for the repayments.

We've had generally bad experiences with private prisons. We've still got a few, but most have not worked well at all.
8.3.2006 1:36pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Donald Kahn writes:

Politics of the situation, yeah, right. Here's some advice: assume that their expression of opinion is based on a desire to promote the general welfare. Until proved otherwise.

Of course I agree. Does anything I've written, including my use of the term "politics," suggest any different?
8.3.2006 2:07pm
liberty (mail) (www):
PatHMV, interesting that you all had a bad experience with private prisons. this report describes some benefits (primarily cost, but not for lesser facilities) that some have found with private prisons.
8.3.2006 2:12pm
The truth in sentencing has had a major impact on states that have as well. A big part of the push for this in Wisconsin was from the local law enforcement.
8.3.2006 2:12pm
Crunchy Frog:
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is somewhat abberational(sp?) in that it does not employ separate corrections officers to staff the county jails. Instead, new deputies spend on average, the first 18 months of their careers working in the jail system before they are let out on the streets. So, for the first year and a half, the newbie experiences two types of person: cops and crooks. While this does breed a very bad-ass deputy, the unfortunate downside is that they tend to be hyper-agressive and not too sympathetic the the average joe who is neither of the above two categories.

Eventually this tendency gets diminished with a few years of service.
8.3.2006 2:42pm
Ira B. Matetsky (mail):
In New York, the correction officers' union has sometimes been active in pushing for harsher sentences against inmates who commit new crimes in the prison -- particularly crimes against the correction officers themselves (such as a recent statute making it a felony for an inmate to throw bodily waste at an officer). I have never heard of the union taking a position on sentencing in other contexts.
8.3.2006 2:44pm
JW (mail):
I think California's union might be an outlier. Lots of corrections officers are represented by AFSCME or SEIU locals, which generally do not advocate tougher criminal laws (apart from expanding laws against assaulting corrections officers). Here, for example, is the New York union (affiliated with AFSCME)

I suspect you'll find a similar situation with independent unions, like this one in Massachusetts.
8.3.2006 2:59pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Liberty, I'd be much more interested in a study comparing recidivism rates of private and public systems. I'm all for privatization, but personally I think that operating a prison system is one of those core governmental functions that I would generally prefer the state to perform. If we could set forth, and accurately measure, an appropriate set of performance measures and incentives in the contract, perhaps I'd be willing to consider privatization more carefully, but I haven't seen much success in that area.

Here, I've mostly seen private prisons (and related private programs like in-house drug rehab programs) do a really good job of making the pitch to get the contract, and cleaning up their act around renewal time. But in between, there's not always adequate supervision of the conditions.

This Google Search provides a great many studies which compare the costs and quality of private versus public prisons. The results appear inconclusive, at best.

I'm not saying that there's no potential role for private prisons. In theory, prison privatization could allow for government to perform a more effective oversight role in prison conditions, for example. In public prisons, review of corrections officers' conduct is generally made by other employees of the corrections department (until the prisoner files suit, at least, which remedies only the harshest abuse). Properly done, the state could retain only an up-close licensing/disciplinary role in the process, providing a much more independent check on abuse by prison officials. I just haven't seen that happen very much.

[Sorry, Sasha, I know this is off-topic]
8.3.2006 3:44pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Crunchy Frog:

[N]ew [LA County] deputies spend on average, the first 18 months of their careers working in the jail system before they are let out on the streets.

It's the same in Orange County, and I believe several other counties in California.
8.3.2006 4:57pm
I haven't heard of State compensated prison guard labor unions doing this, but I have heard of private correctional corporations doing it.
8.3.2006 6:07pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes, both private prison corporations and public prison guard unions do it, but I haven't heard the same of public prison systems, which is why I was asking.
8.3.2006 6:18pm
DaveN (mail):
Working as a Deputy Attorney General with general Criminal Justice responsibilities, I frankly see the pressure for longer sentences and harsher criminal laws as being reflexive of political pressure from others--and not the correctional establishment, whether it be correctional officers or the state department of corrections.

Frankly, departments of correction are already noticing that "tougher sentencing"--things like California's mandatory "3 strikes" law--are creating long term policy problems--particularly when dealing with a limited number of prison beds and skyrocketing healthcare costs.

Most corrections professionals I deal with recognize that the beds will always be full, so there is no reason to agitate for tougher laws.
8.3.2006 6:31pm
Peter Wimsey:
I've worked with Indiana DOC officials on various legislative proposals over the last several years, and I've never heard them exress an opinion - pro or con - concerning a crime of general applicablility. They have spoken in favor of crimes that particularly affect correctional officers, such as battery by body waste, but I've never known them to take a position on a "regular" crime.
8.3.2006 6:58pm