Job Cuts Won’t Fix Prison System

By Michael Kaufman

It seems almost like role reversal as 321 correction officers and other employees of the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick wait on pins and needles for a decision by the governor. Will their workplace receive clemency and their jobs be spared? Or will Governor Cuomo impose a harsh sentence when he announces which of the state’s 67 prisons will be shut down to satisfy the cuts mandated by the budget passed nearly two months ago by the state Legislature?

Mid-Orange is one of eight state prisons that together employ nearly 5,000 people in Orange, Ulster, Sullivan, and Dutchess counties.

Since moving to Warwick some 10 years ago our family has become friendly with more than a few people who work there or at one of the other facilities within commuting distance. This has helped dispel some of my preconceived notions: As a child I was horrified by the sight of chain gangs we passed as we drove south over winter vacation to visit my Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Stanley in Florida.  Black prisoners in striped suits, linked by chains attached to their legs, a weighted black ball attached at the ankle, were forced to labor in the hot sun under the watchful eyes of unsmiling, rifle-toting, uniformed white men.  My father would usually mutter “Gestapo” when we drove past the guards.

Our friends and neighbors who work at the local prisons bear little resemblance to those chain-gang guards. They are among the hard-working public employees whose pensions, healthcare benefits–even their very jobs—are under attack as if they are to blame for the poor economic conditions in our state and across the country. Often their “generous” salaries and pensions are not nearly enough to support their families so they take on additional work. Some mow lawns or do excavating; others supplement their incomes doing carpentry, painting or odd jobs.

The one thing they have in common with those southern chain-gang guards is that they are white and many of the prisoners they guard are black (and/or Latino).  Of course there are some non-white guards and white prisoners as well, but not enough to offset the disturbing fact that “more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Growing crime rates over the past 30 years don’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black—and increasingly brown—men caught in America’s prison system, according to Alexander, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun after attending Stanford Law School. “In fact, crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows,” she pointed out in a recent lecture.

She attributes the increase in imprisonment of black men to the fact that the so-called war on drugs “is waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color” even though studies have shown that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks. In some black inner-city communities, four of five black youth can expect to be caught up in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes.

As a consequence, many black men are disenfranchised says Alexander, prevented by their felony convictions from voting, from living in public housing, discriminated against in hiring, excluded from juries, and denied educational opportunities. Thus it should come as no surprise that 70 percent return to prison within two years.

But here is the rub: If prison population levels were returned to 1970, before the war on drugs began, “more than a million people working  in the system would see their jobs disappear,” says Alexander. (Ironically, the decline in inmate numbers used to justify the impending cuts in New York State is attributable in part to recent reform of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws: As a result, low-level drug offenders now receive lighter sentences.)

Meanwhile, mass incarceration continues to be seen as a boon to the communities in which the prisons are located. Aside from providing jobs, Mid-Orange supports a sewer district in Warwick, which lowers the maintenance cost for other customers, according to Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton, who calls the prison “a real asset.”

Contradictions abound.  But as Lani Guinier, author and professor at Harvard Law School has observed, Alexander “paints a haunting picture in which dreary felon garb, post-prison joblessness, and loss of voting rights now do the stigmatizing work once done by colored-only water fountains and legally segregated schools…[and] we all pay the cost of the new Jim Crow.“

Adds Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and author of Race to Incarcerate, “We need to pay attention to Michelle Alexander’s contention that mass imprisonment in the U.S. constitutes a racial caste system.”

Yes, we need to pay attention and the system needs to be changed. Meanwhile, the 321 employees at Mid-Orange are still waiting for a call from the governor.

Michael can be reached at


Leave a Reply