At Tamms supermax, men are kept in solitary confinement 23 to 24 hours a day for years. | AP FILE PHOTO
Updated: April 26, 2012 8:14AM
In the early spring of 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis. They were motivated by dangerous working conditions, poor wages, racism and the wish to unionize. Members of AFSCME local 1733, and the union’s national president Jerry Wurf, quickly joined the struggle.
Wurf had a long history of progressive organizing. In the late 1940s, he helped establish the New York chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, the civil rights organization founded by James Farmer upon principles of nonviolence advocated by Gandhi. With the help of volunteers from AFSCME Local 37, CORE organized the Journey of Reconciliation, the basis for the future Freedom Rides.
When he was elected president in 1964, Wurf was determined to cement the relationship between AFSCME and the civil rights movement. His chance came when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support the striking workers. King and Wurf discussed strategy, marched and carried the sign that became emblematic of the civil rights movement: “I AM A MAN.” For them, human rights and dignified labor went hand in hand. But the collaboration was tragically ended on April 4, 1968, when King was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
Rights come before jobs
During his tenure as AFSCME president, union membership more than tripled, but Wurf combined compassion with organizing zeal. When the big psychiatric hospitals, such as New York’s Creedmoor, were being decertified, he did not argue to keep them all open. Instead, he fought to ensure that de-institutionalized mental health patients received adequate community and home care. Because he knew these hospitals were hellholes, he was willing to sacrifice some union jobs for the good of people with mental illnesses. But Wurf lost that battle. The national recession of the 1970s intervened, and a generation of patients were turned out in the streets without proper support. These are precisely the people who now fill our nation’s jails and prisons.
AFSCME’s leadership understood that workers’ rights and human rights were inseparable. King believed this too. The night prior to his assassination in Memphis, he gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in which he prophesied his own imminent death. In that address, he also said:
† That he was living in the midst of a “human rights revolution,” and that without granting basic rights of all people regardless of color “the world was doomed.”
† That people must cultivate “a dangerous unselfishness” that challenged the indifference of those who preserved injustice.
† And that people should emulate the Good Samaritan, who turned the word “I” into “thou,” and recognized that to help others was to save our own souls.
AFSCME and its legacy
If you go to the AFSCME’s website, you see King’s face and words everywhere, and rightly so. But today in Illinois, AFSCME is jeopardizing its proud, civil and human rights legacies.
In fighting to preserve the jobs of fewer than 300 workers at Tamms “supermax” prison in Southern Illinois, the union is sanctioning prison conditions that Human Rights Watch recently said “are blatantly inconsistent with the state’s obligation . . . to ensure that conditions of confinement . . . do not constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Indeed, the anguish of long-term isolation, and the resulting physiological damage, shock the conscience.
At Tamms supermax, men are kept in solitary confinement 23 to 24 hours a day for years — sometimes for more than a decade. They are prevented from having contact with any other prisoners, are fed through a slot in their cell doors and are denied any rehabilitative activity. Many men have serious mental illnesses, and if they don’t have them upon entering Tamms, they develop them in the months and years after.
The Department of Corrections is fully capable of maintaining security without Tamms. Most of the 195 supermax prisoners would be transferred to super-secure Pontiac and remain in segregation, though not in conditions as soul-destroying as the isolation at Tamms.
A broader self-interest
In light of its appalling record and exorbitant cost — $65,000 per prisoner per year — Gov. Pat Quinn recently decided to close Tamms. His decision was right, but it has drawn a firestorm of criticism from AFSCME. As a result, even AFSCME’s staunchest supporters are now shrinking from the union. They believe that while corrections staff deserve to have work, their jobs should never come at the expense of the basic human rights of other people. Torture is a crime — it should not be made a career.
The question for AFSCME members is therefore the following: What is the best course to follow when a fundamental issue of justice — what King called “the human rights revolution” — comes in conflict with a narrow definition of interest? The history outlined above — of King, Wurf and the Memphis strike — offers a clear answer:
It is to stand on the side of justice and to recognize that in protecting the fundamental rights of others — even prisoners — we protect our own as well.
Stephen F. Eisenman is a professor of art history at Northwestern University and author of seven books, including The Abu Ghraib Effect (2007.)