In the past, prison unions have been seen as one of the primary obstacles to some criminal justice reforms, particularly reform of solitary confinement. But in a letter obtained by the Texas Observer, the state’s largest prison union is now calling for the state to curb its use of prisoner isolation.
“As the president of the largest correctional professional organization in Texas I am calling on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to change the death row plan to positively impact both the correctional staff and offenders on Texas death row,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3807 President Lance Lowry wrote.
Solitary confinement has been called torture, cruel and unusual, and a living death because of the affect it has on inmates, particularly the mentally ill. But from the union’s perspective, it also increases the risks to the guards because it tends to foster violence. The union argues that in solitary, “inmates have very few privileges to lose” and staff become easy targets. Instead, “the Texas death row plan needs to address tools that can manage positive behavior” — bolstering arguments against solitary confinement that extend beyond just death row inmates.
The letter says increased confinement of death row inmates in solitary housing that keeps them in their cells 23 hours a day and allows them almost no interaction with other prisoners was a “knee jerk reaction” to an inmate’s escape that “ignored the root of the problem” — lack of staff competency.
Recently, a Virginia federal judge held the automatic solitary confinement of all death row inmates unconstitutional, and other courts have held the practice unconstitutional as applied to the mentally ill. But the practice remains rampant in some prisons, despite widespread opposition and protest.
The old assumption is that corrections officers are inclined to lobby for policies that create jobs for corrections officers. But this is one of several areas in which prison employees are now joining the movement for criminal justice reform in the name of officer safety and prisoner humanity. A few months ago, the world’s largest correctional association called for the elimination of mandatory minimum prison terms.