Prison Labor

Posted on February 8, 2011 by

California prison guards have one of the best career-jobs in the state:  decent pay, steady work and medical benefits.

A lot of correctional centers are located in remote regions like the central valley where unemployment is high and many factory and cannery jobs have disappeared.

The local prison helps sustain the economy in depressed communities.

The “prison industrial complex” has been growing fast in California which now has 173,000 inmates in over-crowded and dangerous state-run facilities.  The abysmal medical treatment inside has provoked a constitutional crisis with federal courts demanding an end to the “cruel and unusual punishment” inflicted by crammed cells and bad health care.

For many working-class Californians, however, a job in corrections is a way up.  And it’s also union work.

The 30,000 member California Correctional Peace Officers Association is among the most influential labor organizations in the state.  CCPOA gives a lot of campaign money – and gets considerable political support – from both pro-union democrats and law and order republicans.

The CCPOA takes a tough stand on crime and is not a big fan of prisoners’ right; but the union is an advocate of workplace reform and obviously has a stake in improving conditions.

Critics of California incarceration rates and long sentences may see the CCPOA as reactionary.

This reminds me of a debate 30 years ago when industrial unions were forced to support pollution-gushing plants in order to save jobs.

These unions were often politically isolated, facing off against corporate interests eager to offshore manufacturing and clean air advocates who breathed easier when the old mills were converted to riverside condos.

I can even recall talk back then about “liberating” American factory workers from their mind-numbing routines. 

I don’t want to overstretch the comparison.

You wouldn’t oppose more lenient sentencing and more sensible parole standards in order to save prison jobs.

But recent news stories implicating California prison guards in the illegal distribution of cell phones to inmates will certainly cast wide blame on these workers and the union which protects them.

I just think we should reserve some sympathy for these men and women whose best shot at a good-paying union job are inside these walls.

Comments (5)


  1. Vivian Price says:

    Lou- The paradox of supporting pollution-gushing plants and the prison industrial complex for union jobs is an apt one. Yes, folks need jobs. But let’s fight for hospitals and schools and green jobs with good wages for working class people. It’s not in working people’s interest to maintain oppressive three strike laws, impossible drug law regimes, and a racial caste system that is maintained by the criminal justice system.
    Here’s another paradox: fighting against democracy in Egypt to maintain “peace” in the Middle East. Where will the Democratic Party and the labor movement stand on this?

  2. James Ortiz says:

    I thought this was going to be an article about the slave labor performed by the inmates. As a former CA Dept of Corrections inmate I had it relatively ‘good’ being paid 48 cents an hour for painting at Soledad. After a transfer to Susanville I took a vocational course in screenprinting and worked my way up fro 8 cents to 48 cents cents an hour. There are so many jobs performed by inmates its ridiculous. You think firemen put out those CA wildfires? HA! Inmates to all the grunt work, digging trenches etc. Those farms that produce vegetables and meat? Not performed by Union Labor, I’ll tell you that. The clothing? Yup, inmate produced. The Correctional Officers are a strong Union and are very politically active but most are just glorified babysitters making way too much money.

  3. Jann Whetstone says:

    WOW! Thank you all for your comments and different perspectives on this issue, I feel in an awkward position regarding this issue. I do not like the criminal system set-up. Many of these inmates are there and return because there are NOT alot of decent paying jobs for ex-offenders. I agree with Vivian GREEN Jobs for all.
    Think about it… as hard as many of them work in prison for $00.48 an hour, I believe that many of them would even harder for $35.00 hour given the right information, support and opportunity!
    Currently I am mentoring a 33 yr-old male who is incarcerated, he has never had a job, however, since I’ve been in contact with him over the last 18 months, he has made tremendous improvements and major accomplishments. He is an eager learner he has earned his GED, taken an Algebra Course, working as an electrical apprentice and also actively seeking employment as a electrical lineman with IBEW 47. I have given him tons of information but he must do the footwork and HE HAS!
    In addition to all the other work I do I also have “my prison ministry” which is selling the idea of “UNION APPRENTICESHIP” to inmates (youth, male and female)Thay are very grateful and say “how noone has ever taken the time with them”. Imagine the potential workforce, Building trades could take back a much larger share of the industry not to mention the benefits to the ex-offenders, their families and society…..

  4. Linda Tubach says:

    Just have to say, right on, sisters Vivian and Jann!!

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