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Public Unions and Sadistic Prison Guards

Walter Russell Mead

Why is it so hard to fire abusive prison guards? Because they’re unionized. Here’s an eye-opening account of one abusive corrections officer’s ability to keep his job in New York. A taste:

Inmates at Ulster, a medium-security state prison, are required to stay in place and keep their voices low during the count. Fabian, who was serving a one-year sentence for a drug conviction, had been talking to another inmate, but he said in a recent interview that he thought he had been following the rules.

After the count was over, the guard escorted him past a set of double doors out of view of other inmates and the prison’s electronic surveillance cameras. Fabian said the officer, Michael Bukowski, a seven-year veteran, had then ordered him to face the wall and brace himself in the “pat-frisk” position, arms outstretched and legs spread. As he did so, Fabian recalled, he looked down and saw the toe of a boot swinging up between his legs.

He saw a flash of light, felt a piercing pain and collapsed. “He told me to get up, but all I could do was crawl back to my cube,” Fabian, who is now 21, told investigators later. He lay on the floor in his cubicle in the prison’s dormitory, groaning and crying, for almost an hour before hobbling to lunch. In the mess hall, a sergeant sent him to the prison’s medical unit. He was soon loaded into a van and driven 80 miles north to a hospital in Albany. Doctors there performed emergency surgery, removing part of his right testicle.

Questioned by an investigator from the state corrections department’s inspector general’s office a few days after the episode on July 22, 2014, Bukowski said he knew nothing about the injury. He said he had “counseled” Fabian about the importance of keeping quiet during the count. He acknowledged that he had raised his voice, and that when he sent Fabian back to his cubicle, the inmate was “crying a little.” Corrections officials concluded that the guard had used excessive force and was lying. Officer Bukowksi was suspended without pay on July 31, 2014, and the department soon moved to fire him.

More than a year later, however, Bukowski is still a state employee. His disciplinary case remains unresolved, although he faces a criminal charge of assault. His case, described in court documents and interviews, offers a stark example of the intricate protections that shield New York’s 20,000 corrections officers, even when there is compelling evidence of abuse.

The same mechanism applies to bad cops on the street: union rules make it harder to reward good ones and get rid of the bad apples. And of course, the same thing happens in schools, where teachers are protected by union rules. Most guards—and most cops and teachers—aren’t incompetent or sadistic. But enough are that it is in all our interest that we take another look at how public employees are managed.

Some people get better with seniority on the job, and some get much worse—especially when it’s a job that involves working with people under difficult circumstances. Some teachers—and cops and prison guards—mature and develop with experience, and at 60 are wiser, more knowledgeable, and more compassionate than they were at 25. Some, however, are just marking the days to retirement. Some become hardened and uncaring, dulled by routine and sunk in an “Us vs. Them” mentality that makes them unfit for their work. And a few go genuinely bad.

Unfortunately the (union dictated) pension systems in place in most states and cities heavily penalize workers who change jobs, even as union rules make it virtually impossible to get rid of those who no longer perform well. All over America there are civil service workers who cling like grim death to jobs they hate simply because defined benefit pension rules keep them shackled in place.

Reform would reward workers who do well and who grow on the job, weed out the incompetent and the brutal, and encourage job mobility so that fewer workers feel “stuck” in a job or profession that no longer attracts them. The only losers in this reform would be bad workers and union bosses. Everyone else—employees and clients and the community in general—would be better of.

Meanwhile, there are few clearer illustrations of the way that blue institutions crush blue political constituencies. Bad cops, bad teachers, and bad prison guards are problems for the poor and minorities. But the public sector unions are hugely powerful in the Democratic party. At the national level, they are among the biggest funders. At the state and local level, they are also big funders and are a reliable sources of votes and campaign workers. In Detroit, the unions were vital enablers of the organized criminal conspiracy that bankrupted the city and blighted the lives of two generations of mostly minority kids, who were stuck in failing schools in a declining city that was being pillaged by thieves claiming to represent black identity politics.

This situation offers a clear perspective on how the Democratic Party is failing to serve the interests of the people it claims to protect. But Republicans shouldn’t be smug. That Democrats, saddled with such a dysfunctional policy agenda and chained to such retrograde institutions as public sector unions, enjoy a near monopoly on the support of poor, urban, and minority voters is a crushing indictment of a massive GOP leadership failure—and of a deeper problem in American society as a whole. It is only in the country of the blind that the one-eyed man is king.

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