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AFL-CIO Convention Delegates Condemn Mass Incarceration of People of Color

Today, the AFL-CIO came out strongly in favor of reforms to the U.S. prison system that would have significant benefits to communities, people of color, correctional employees and inmates who are trying to reform their lives and rejoin society. In his statement to support the resolution, UC Berkeley Labor Center economist Steven Pitts said, “It is good the AFL-CIO is recognizing that we cannot organize an economy that provides shared prosperity if we don’t also end mass incarceration.” In particular, the federation criticized the high costs to our communities of locking up too many workers, disproportionately African American, instead of having them at work supporting their families or in school learning. And, this drive is fueled in part by a privatized prison industry that, in the name of bigger corporate profits, mistreats workers, creates inhumane conditions for prisoners and incentivizes the incarceration of more and more American citizens in order to make the wealthiest Americans more profits.

James Boland, president of the Bricklayers (BAC), introduced the resolution. 

For AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the issue is deeply personal. 

"....The first time I toured a prison, the most striking thing I saw—and I already knew the statistics, but it’s a whole different thing to see with your own eyes—was how absolutely packed our prisons are with young black and brown men. We’re not locking up individuals as much as a demographic.

"And that, right there, is the result of bias. It’s the result of prejudice. And it’s wrong.

"America does not need now, and never has needed, to imprison so many of our young people—especially young men of color. Too many who fill our prisons are nonviolent and come from low-income households, with little access to jobs and little to no opportunity or hope. We’ve seen this pattern before. A hundred years ago, a common crime sending black men to work on the prison chain gangs was vagrancy. In some states, the crime was to not have a job. This isn’t much different. The truth is, as a nation, we punish people for being brown, for being black."

A resolution, passed by delegates to the AFL-CIO national convention, laid out the problems with the prison-industrial complex very clearly:

  • The number of people in America's jails and prisons has quadrupled since 1980.
  • Mass incarceration has a disproportionate impact on individuals and communities of color.
  • Even upon release, former inmates are stigmatized with a criminal record and have difficulty transitioning back into society.
  • New policies particularly target aspiring Americans.
  • When the system is based on profits, justice becomes a secondary thought.
  • The for-profit model, leads to cost-cutting that creates inhumane conditions for inmates.
  • Correctional facilities are not adequately staffed.
  • Correctional employees are given low pay and little training, which increases danger for both themselves and inmates.
  • Correctional facilities are overcrowded, leading to the release of some who have been convicted of violent crimes.
  • Impoverished neighborhoods lose thousands of working-age men, families become strained, income streams are lost and families are broken up.
  • Those who have paid their debt to society are often denied rights, including the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to obtain student loans, public benefits or other services.
  • Many former inmates are released to live in neighborhoods with few job opportunities and little chance for them to turn their lives around.
  • The "school-to-prison" pipeline creates harsh policies for students, condemning many of them to prison and reduced chances of success at life.
  • The for-profit prison system disenfranchises many voters, particularly people of color, and distorts democracy.

Most importantly, the resolution notes, the rise in mass incarceration is not an accident or the result of societal trends, it is largely the result of a lobbying campaign by the private prison industry. The AFL-CIO plans to take the following steps to address the problems associated with the for-profit prison industry:

  • Support policies that end the privatization of correctional facilities and services.
  • Support efforts to provide adequate staffing for correctional institutions.
  • Support criminal sentencing policies that are fair, commensurate with the crime and consistent with public safety requirements.
  • Oppose inappropriately long mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes.
  • Support policies that accelerate the justice process and eliminate unnecessary pre-trial detention time.
  • Support strategies that assist in reintegrating people into society who have served their time.
  • Support treating drug use as a public health issue and focus on treatment of users.
  • Support the full restoration of citizenship rights, including the right to vote, for those who have completed their prison sentences.
  • Support programs that reduce the number of young people who drop out of school or are suspended or expelled.

Read the full text of the resolution.

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