LOS ANGELES -- The AFL-CIO condemned the nation's prison system that disproportionately targets people of color, in a strongly worded resolution unanimously approved by the federation's quadrennial convention here Sept. 10.
The resolution blasts "for-profit prison companies" that promote a correctional system "for the sake of profit without regard to justice."
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who chaired the session on resolutions, did not often inject his own personal views, but on this one, he spoke out movingly: "We have failed our communities," he said - in the shabby housing we have provided, in the inadequate schools we have offered, in the absence of decent, well-paying jobs, many of which we have shipped overseas. "And then we lock up the people left behind!"
Citing his own recent experience touring a prison, Trumka was shocked to see "how absolutely packed our prisons are with young Black and brown men. It's not much different from the old laws against 'vagrancy'" that sent thousands of men to chain gangs providing free labor to the state. We cannot just write such vast numbers of people off, he said. "There's a big money industry driving it - a system that profits from misery. We must and we will do better."
Trumka called for replacing "the school-to-prison pipeline with good jobs and a voice on the job." He asked our nation to "stop investing in private prisons and start investing in working people."
He also acknowledged hard-working fellow union members who are prison guards, often placed in dangerous and stressful situations. But the larger issue remains, he said.
The resolution points out that the nation's prison population exploded from 500,000 to 2.2 million between 1980 and 2011, in the decades since the for-profit business of incarceration was born. It cites a Pew Center study noting that one in every 106 white males over the age of 18 is incarcerated, compared to one in 36 Hispanic males, and one in 15 Black males.
The private prison industry has lobbied for increased penalties for non-violent and minor crimes such as possession of small amounts of drugs, and for lengthy or lifetime incarceration through "three-strikes" sentencing laws. The resolution also cites the fact that prison corporations, in their contracts with states, even insist on "bed guarantees" demanding that 90 percent or 100 percent of their beds be filled.
Roxanne Brown from the United Steelworkers quoted a more than century-old statement by former AFL leader Samuel Gompers calling for "more schools and less jails." She reminded the convention that the U.S. spends six times mote on prisons than on education. The U.S. holds the Number 1 position worldwide in its incarceration rate.
The resolution describes the harmful "school-to-prison pipeline" - policies and practices that push young people, especially children of color, out of school and into the criminal justice system. These include "overly harsh disciplinary policies, budget cuts that have left schools without resources to support students and families, zero tolerance policies, and increased school-based arrests."
The resolution says the criminal justice system is an "inherently governmental function," and calls for an end to privatization of correctional facilities.
It calls for "the restoration of full citizenship rights for those convicted of non-violent offenses once they have completed their prison sentences, including the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, and full access to government services, such as financial aid for education, housing, and employment assistance."
Further, it supports "the effective use and full funding of training, education, probation, and parole strategies that assist in re-integrating people who have served their time into our communities."
And it says drug use and treatment should be handled as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue as it is now.
Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers and a 20-year teacher at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, spoke on the resolution. He noted that his school's population was 100% black and brown. He said he personally witnessed, in his time there, how gradually, year after year, staff was reduced, class size increased, courses were dropped, electives were canceled. There was a steady impoverishment of the educational environment, he said. As a result, he said, it was no surprise to him that so many of those kids found themselves in trouble - and in prison.
Debate over mass incarceration and prison reform is very much in the air. Michelle Alexander's groundbreaking exposé "The New Jim Crow" alerted the country to just how racist the criminal justice system is. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have recently made statements about the issue.
The Los Angeles Times on Monday reported on a drug-sentencing bill in the California State Assembly (SB 649), which would give courts as much leeway in handling cocaine and heroin cases as they already have for methamphetamine use. The bill was proposed by liberal state Sen. Mark Leno, but even conservative state legislators like Tim Donnelly and Rocky Chavez have supported a fresh look at out-of-control sentencing. Donnelly said, "The war on drugs is a colossal failure."
Photo: Modern chain gang of juvenile convicts, 2008. Passportguy, Wikimedia.