Prison Guards Union Locks Up Benefits, Politicians, People

Is the deplorable state of California's prisons, which has now been underscored by a Supreme Court decision ordering the state to release almost a quarter of its prisoners, the fault of the state prison guards union? 

Orange County Federalist Society vice president Tim Kowal says yes, in a long and abundantly documented post at League of Ordinary Gentlemen. After describing the decline of the Golden State prison system from “envy of the nation” to crumbling institution, Kowal explains how the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) helped bring the lousy: 

The CCPOA has played a significant role in advocating pro-incarceration policies and opposing pro-rehabilitative policies in California. In 1980, CCPOA’s 5,600 members earned about $21,000 a year and paid dues of about $35 a month. After the rapid expansion of the prison population beginning in the 1980s, CCPOA’s 33,000 members today earn approximately $73,000 and pay monthly dues of about $80. These dues raise approximately $23 million each year, of which the CCPOA allocates approximately $8 million to lobbying. As [author Joan] Petersilia explains, “The formula is simple: more prisoners lead to more prisons; more prisons require more guards; more guards means more dues-paying members and fund-raising capability; and fund-raising, of course, translates into political influence.”

My column in the July issue of Reason (which you could be reading right now if you’d subscribe already!) tracks CCPOA’s involvement in lobbying and politics. I discussed these matters recently with CBC Radio.  

It’s true that CCPOA is the most important advocate for and beneficiary of the state’s three strikes law (the harshest in the nation) and its post-1980 prison boom. But a share of the blame must also go to the political climate that made such tough-on-crime measures unfailingly popular everywhere in the country, regardless of effectiveness or long-term (and not always foreseen) fiscal commitments. A full accounting of CCPOA’s political activity shows that it supports tougher sentencing laws, stricter parole requirements and more prisons. But it also lobbies on seemingly far afield matters such as redistricting and term limit laws. At the broadest level, CCPOA is out to defend the political status quo in all its forms.

There’s another element – nicely described in Joshua Page’s book The Toughest Beat – that helps explain both CCPOA’s extremism and its unique power. For much of their history the prison guards have been underdogs in California law enforcement. Guards get little respect in California cop culture. They received even less respect from politicians in both the period of button-down liberal consensus and the radical New Left era that succeeded it. During the late sixties and early seventies, the job of prison guard took on a political dimension that is almost impossible to imagine today, as self-styled prisoner political leaders were mollycoddled by the media and given a remarkable amount of deference by politicians. State legislators would hold respectful negotiations with prison-yard thugs posing as revolutionaries. At one point serious consideration was given to a plan to form a prisoner union with collective bargaining rights. Having to keep dangerous criminals under control in such an absurd political climate fostered both CCPOA’s zeal and the lone wolf mentality that makes it an outlier even among California government employee unions. 

But Kowal brings out something that’s easy to lose track of when tracking CCPOA’s exotic political power. It is still in many respects a typical government employee union, and it delivers the kind of featherbedding, work-rule gaming and protection of bad employees you’d expect: 

Prison guards also enjoy pensions calculated using the favorable 3%-at-50 formula.  An officer who retires at 50 takes as his pension a percentage of his last year’s salary equal to three times the number of years worked.  (For example, an officer who retires at age 50 after 30 years on the job will receive 90% of his salary during retirement (3 x 30 years).  More on this subject here.)  Since the maximum retirement benefits are 90 percent, working past 30 years is basically working for free.  Teachers, by contrast, receive a pension calculated as 2.5 percent of their salaries per year of employment at age 63…

That the CCPOA effectively wields so much governmental power explains how the misconduct of their members goes unchecked, and reported sexual assault, unreasonable use of tasers and pepper spray, hitting with flashlights and batons, punching and kicking, slurs and racial epithets, among others, go uninvestigated. According to the 138-page opinion in Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D.Cal. 1995), “The court finds that supervision of the use of non-lethal force at Pelican Bay is strikingly deficient,” and “It is clear to the Court that while the IAD [Internal Affairs Division] goes through the necessary motions, it is invariably a counterfeit investigation pursued with one outcome in mind: to avoid finding officer misconduct as often as possible. As described below, not only are all presumptions in favor of the officer, but evidence is routinely strained, twisted or ignored to reach the desired result.” The court held that the prison guards and officials engaged in unnecessary infliction of pain and use of excessive force, and violated the Eighth Amendment, among other things. According to testimony in Madrid, from 1989 to 1994 officers in California’s state prisons shot and killed more than 30 inmates. By contrast, in all other state and federal prisons nationally only 6 inmates were killed in the same period-and 5 of those were shot while attempting to escape... 

Tame by comparison, the investigation earlier this year into prison guards who smuggled 10,000 cellphones to inmates in 2010—including one guard who obtained $150,000 through the illegal practice—hardly made a blip on anyone’s radar.  Nor did this or the union’s many other abuses prevent it from successfully negotiating a vacation benefits package with Gov. Brown recently for, among other perks, eight weeks of vacation per year, additional time upon gaining seniority, and the right to cash out an unlimited amount of accrued vacation time upon retirement at final pay scale.  Although the CCPOA insists the deal simply pays its members for the vacation days they were unable to take due to staffing shortages, the CCPOA itself is a significant contributor to the overcrowding and budgetary constraints that led to these shortages.

The whole article is worth reading.

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  • ||

    But it also lobbies on seemingly far afield matters such as redistricting and term limit laws.

    Mmmhmmm, go on. Please, do, explain the far-afieldness. At length. I'm prepared to be amused. See, *hefts a big bag of popcorn*

    (If that aint the Finish Line of lobbiation, I don't know what is.)

  • minge||

    But, aren't they betraying the interests of their shareholders members by lobbying for these sorts of things? I think that should be forbidden, to protect the interests of investors prison guards, which as a liberal (and thus, unlike libertarians, as someone capable of empathy), I know even better than the guards themselves.

  • SIV||

    At one point serious consideration was given to a plan to form a prisoner union with collective bargaining rights.

    This bit o' history is enough to make me ever so slightly more sympathetic to the CCPOA. Of course the bad old days are well behind them.

  • Jim||

    Thus is formed my plan to move to CA, become a prison guard, then retire back home in Texas, with it's much lower COL.

    I plan to enact Human Centipede with the prisoners, and then get the union to bail me out.

  • ||

    feed it the cuttlefish!

  • cynical||

    "At one point serious consideration was given to a plan to form a prisoner union with collective bargaining rights."

    And this is why we don't use prison labor - so they can't go on strike.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't see what any of this has to do with Anthony Weiner.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Uh...prison? Weiner? Hello??

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Penal system? Oh, grow up.

  • Matt||

    Being a prison guard is probably one of the most stressful jobs I can imagine, and I have a lot of respect for the men who put themselves in harms way to keep murderers and rapists in custody.

    However, that does not justify the prison guard union's clear politicization, especially when they support measures like the 3 strikes and you're out law for no other clear reason than it increases their own business (more prisoners = more prison guards). That sort of logic is a deplorable perversion of their mission. I don't see how the three strikes rule is frankly any of a prison guard union's business as it has no direct impact on their daily job (besides increasing the prison population and therefore providing them with more work). As with so many industries in contemporary US society, a once-honorable professional association is veering dangerously close to becoming a racket that buys and pays for political favors from the establishment. Is there no honest group of professionals left these days, that don't seek to exploit the bully pulpit of the government to extort money (or worse, in the case of the prison guards, auto insurers, etc, more involuntary consumers of their services) from taxpayers and citizens?

  • Sidd Finch||

    "However, that does not justify the prison guard union's clear politicization, especially when they support measures like the 3 strikes and you're out law for no other clear reason than it increases their own business (more prisoners = more prison guards)"

    I think their unique experience could lead them to support 3 strikes laws, just as LEAP has unique experience to support their position. But they should organize politically on their own time. IMO the real problem with unions is the mandated membership combined with politicking. If the unions were either voluntary or restricted to the core mission, I think these shenanigans would be drastically reduced.

  • GH||

    A union's core mission, it's only mission, it to promote anything that benefits its members. The politician's only mission is to get reelected. Politician could just say "no" to union demands. Get another job if you don't like the wages and comps. In CA, at least, the public sector unions win the votes the politicians crave, every time. It's the CA voter's fault. They chose not elect enough pols to say "no".

  • Matt||

    Good point, as long as membership is mandatory and violently enforced, a big part of a union's definition of "success" becomes simply to increase its industry's share of the pie so they can get more members -- quantity over quality. The more prison guards there are, the more money the union gets regardless of how well it actually represents their interests.

    I'm sure there are some prison guards who don't personally think it's a good idea or even in their own interest to throw lots of nonviolent offenders in the slammer and increase the percentage of the populace in jail. But the union doesn't represent any of those folks -- they just want more guards on the payroll so they get more dues.

  • Alan||

    Agreed - it's difficult and dangerous work, and prison guards deserve our support and respect ... within limits - limits which the prison guards in California have clearly crossed.

    As one example, I can even understand stacking the investigations into misconduct so that guards are rarely found at fault. If the guards are held fully accountable for every mistaken judgment they make they will quickly learn to cover their ass at the expense of doing their job properly. At the same time, this requires a trade-off: quick dismissal of those guards who show a pattern of poor judgment, and immediate dismissal of those guards who show signs of sadistic behavior.

  • ||

    unions are much like govt. they seek to expand - influence, power, benefits, stuff!

    and then you have GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE UNIONS... well... do the math

  • Traveler||

    Police shooting of the week, this time from Montreal (see the Montreal Gazette). Cops find a man going through trash with a knife, chase him ten blocks, shoot him and a bystander after he "brandishes" the knife at them.

    At least in Canada they have a different police force investigate killings by police officers.

  • ||

    The three strikes law makes it more dangerous for prison guards. I takes dangerous people and gives them no hope of getting out of jail and no way for guards to reward good behavior. With the death penalty effectively off the table in California, there is very little deterrence against shanking a guard for someone doing life without parole in California.

    Go talk to an individual federal prison guard sometime. They will tell you that when the feds got rid of parole, their jobs got much harder and much more dangerous since their prisoners had less reason to behave well.

    Union support of the three strikes law is a classic example of where the Union's interest is not the same as the individual worker's interest. The Union has an interest in more prisons and thus more members and more dues. They don't care if one of their members gets killed or hurt, since that they will just be replaced by another dues paying drone. The individual member in contrast already has a job and has a direct interest in his own safety that the Union, at least in a closed shop state, doesn't.

  • Ancap||

    [i]prison guards who smuggled 10,000 cellphones to inmates in 2010—including one guard who obtained $150,000 through the illegal practice—hardly made a blip on anyone’s radar. Nor did this or the union’s many other abuses prevent it from successfully negotiating a vacation benefits package with Gov. Brown recently for, among other perks, eight weeks of vacation per year, additional time upon gaining seniority, and the right to cash out an unlimited amount of accrued vacation time upon retirement at final pay scale. [/i]

    Kill 'em all!

  • WTF||

    [...]the IAD [Internal Affairs Division] goes through the necessary motions, it is invariably a counterfeit investigation pursued with one outcome in mind: to avoid finding officer misconduct as often as possible. As described below, not only are all presumptions in favor of the officer, but evidence is routinely strained, twisted or ignored to reach the desired result.”

    This sounds pretty much like police investigations when free citizens are the target of 'a few bad apples'.

  • ||

    maybe in some agencies. not in the ones i've worked in. it's well understood that one of the easiest paths to promotion is apply for internal affairs and be successful at investigating and punishing cops.

  • MNG||

    Correctional unions have played an important role in improving prison conditions. Workers don't want to work in unsanitary, unsafe prisons, it's a common thing for unions to push for better working conditions.

  • Matt||

    I don't think anyone has a problem with that. What we do have a problem is with the union essentially racketeering to create more "work" for themselves by convincing the government to throw more nonviolent people in prison.

  • MNG||

    I don't want to see that either, but I'm betting unions are a drop in the bucket in our law and order rush. Our incaceration explosion coincided with union decline and, not incidentally, with the Reagan Revolution.

  • ||

    There is one way to solve this issue. Pass right to work laws. Then the unions have to actually care about the conditions and safety of their individual workers and don't automatically benefit from an increase in the prison population. It creates the proper incentives for all parties.

  • MNG||

    1. They already have these things called elections, in theory in a shop state the union leadership would have to face more hostility from the membership (since some of them will feel like they are a 'captive' membership)

    2. Right to work just kills the union because the union has to bargain for every worker so free riding is incentivized

    3. Increasing the prison population per se is not conducive even to the limited union goals you identify as it does not necesarily mean more guards, it could just mean more over-crowding and worse guard-to-inmate ratios, something again the membership would react to in elections

    The way to solve this is to refute law and order conservatives and the pussy liberals who go along with their demands for more and more incaceration.

  • MNG||

    For your theory to be correct prisons in right to work states would experience less overcrowding, growth, increases in incarceration, etc. I don't think you can produce any evidence of that...

  • MNG||

    Here is some data on recent prison population growth, notice no pattern between right to work states and shop states.

    http://www.pewcenteronthestate.....t_2010.pdf

  • ||

    Then perhaps your theory that unions care about the working conditions of their members is wrong. If so, then my theory that having right to work will give them an incentive to reduce prison overcrowding is wrong too.

  • MNG||

    It shows that right to work or not doesn't effect population growth, it says little about the overall conditions. Certainly inmate population is one factor in overall conditions, but only one. As for overcrowding it is just one side of the equation (hiring/building being the other).

  • Matt||

    The union nakedly advocating increased incarceration for nonviolent offenders doesn't help the situation, MNG.

    Each state is probably different. But I'm willing to wager the union heads are smart enough to realize that even if more incarceration may mean overcrowding and poorer conditions in the short term, it will also give them more negotiating leverage and at some point there will have to be more hirings out of necessity. It's like a dishonest stockbroker trying to flood a market so that they can profit from the panic. They cynically calculate that more employees (who are usually permanently employed once they get on the payroll) is better for them than preserving good short term working conditions.

  • ||

    Of course if Unions are so interested in safety, the most unionized states ought to be the least over crowded and the safest to work in. There is a lot more driving prison over crowding than unions, you are correct. But there is certainly a lot of evidence that they are hurting not helping the situation for example the heavily unionized California having the worst and most over crowded prisons.

  • MNG||

    1. Does California have the worst problem? I honestly don't know, I do know that just because they aer the subject of a well publicized lawsuit does not mean it has the worst.

    2. California is different from other states in more than simply their correctional guards being unionized. Their plight could just as easily have to do with the fact that like all states they love their goodies and unlike many states it is structurally hard to raise taxes in order to pay for it.

  • ||

    First, there are unions all over right to work states. So, it doesn't kill the unions. And free riding is only incentivized if the only thing a union does is get higher wages. But a good union does more than that. A good union represents individual workers who have grievances and makes sure that the company treats its members fairly and follows the rules. That gives workers a reason to join. You want someone to represent you when the boss screws you over.

    In a closed shop, the union doesn't care about you as an individual. They know if you are fired, the person that is hired to replace you will have to join the union. So they get their dues, which is what it is about, either way. In an open shop, there is no guarantee the next guy will join. And the union has to show the employees there is a reason to join. So they will look out for you as an individual, not just your dues paying position.

    And further, there are these things called union thugs. In a closed shop unions almost never get decertified and the leadership is almost never voted out. The long and rampant history of mafia involvement and union corruption disproves any idea that elections are some kind of a check on union behavior. They are not.

    Right to work is not just good for employers. It is good for employees and unions. It makes the unions compete for workers and gives them an incentive to be free from corruption. If people are free to quit the union, the union can't get away with corruption for very long.

  • MNG||

    "First, there are unions all over right to work states."

    It's easily demonstrable that union membership is significantly lower in right to work states. Also, many unions in right to work states exist as parts of national unions in specialist areas.

    "And free riding is only incentivized if the only thing a union does is get higher wages."

    Not true, CBA's involve a wide assortment of things, from pay to working conditions etc.

    "A good union represents individual workers who have grievances and makes sure that the company treats its members fairly and follows the rules."

    And this is more easily done when the rules are embedded in a CBA. The CBA usually covers all employees, so if you get the benefit without the membership, why join?

    "And further, there are these things called union thugs."

    The union thug argument is a tired one. By the logic it follows (there have been thugs in unions, therefore we need to structure the rules to combat the thugs) we should have stricter gun control because there historically have been nuts who shoot people.

  • ||

    Yes, there are fewer unions in right to work states because they have to compete for workers. Shocking I know.

    CBA covers lots of things beyond wages. And if you are not a member of the union and the company violates the CBA with respect to you, the union will not represent you. That is an incentive for you to join. If the free rider problem were such a big deal, no one would ever join a union in a right to work state. But of course they do by the thousands.

    All right to work laws do is make unions care about their employees. That is why liberals hate such laws. To liberals unions do not exist to help individual employees. They exist to forcibly extract money to fund liberal political causes. And right to work allows employees to say no to that and refuse to give up their money. The last thing liberals want is unions who care about their employees more than they do about liberal political causes.

  • MNG||

    You really think that liberals only care about unions because they want them as fundraising? That's stupid or dishonest.

    I'm a liberal and I care about unions because I think they protect the interests and dignity of workers.

    In closed shops the employees don't have to be full members, they just have to pay fees for the bargaining and representation.

  • ||

    You care about those workers only when the unions fund liberal causes and those workers are forced to fund said unions. Unions are more responsive and less corrupt where workers can voluntarily leave the union. But you don't want them to be able to do that. So don't tell me you care about the quality of unions or the interests of the workers. Your position shows otherwise.

  • ||

    Over the past 70 years unions have stolen billions of dollars from their members and m misappropriated billions more in pursuit of liberal political causes that had nothing to do with their members' interest. That sorry history alone should mean that no one ever should be required by law to join one.

  • MNG||

    "That sorry history alone should mean that no one ever should be required by law to join one."

    And they are not. you misunderstand what goes on, in right to work states CBA's are prevented from having union shop clauses, it is the employers and unions who are prevented from having those clauses. The worker in other states is not forced to join the union, it is a condition of employment in a workplace that has a closed shop clause in the CBA.

  • ||

    They are required by law to join if they want a job. That is required by law. No one should ever have to join to keep their job.

  • MNG||

    In either type of state a union can be certified as the exclusive bargaining unit for all employees. In right to work states the employee would be covered by the CBA negotiated by the union but would not have to join, classic free rider problem.

  • Fluffy||

    Um, so what if free riding is incentivized?

    Right now each of us is "free riding" on the fact that worldwide demand for computers increased economies of scale in computer manufacturing and brought computer prices down.

    Should someone be allowed to declare themselves the Computer Owner Union and make us pay dues?

    Sometimes the economic activities of others have indirect benefits for us. Big whoop.

  • MNG||

    "In a closed shop, the union doesn't care about you as an individual."

    When a union is the exclusive bargaining unit it actually has a legally enforceable duty to represent all individual employees equally.

  • ||

    That is not what happens MNG. IN closed shop states the Union simply doesn't have the incentive to fight as hard in individual grievance cases. They get their money no matter who is hired.

  • MNG||

    They get sued all the time and fined by the NLRB and lose tons of money, that's a pretty big deterrent.

  • ||

    Good luck suing a union. And they almost never lose before the NLRB. What chance does an individual worker who has been screwed by both his employer and his union have fighting a union? Zero chance. The only real vote a worker gets is with his feat by leaving or refusing to join.

  • Fluffy||

    The problem is that when they do it is orders of magnitude worse morally.

    The general public always has the moral out of claiming that they're scared of crime, and that's why they respond to politicians who call for policies like the ones we have.

    The union's economic interest here means that when they make the same claim, I have to disregard it. They don't want to subject more people to a brutal prison system out of fear. They want to do it for a few bucks in overtime.

  • MNG||

    So calling for something out of self-interest is morally worse than calling for something out of ignorance, fear and prejudice? Odd sentiment from you I should think.

  • Fluffy||

    It depends on the "thing" involved.

    In this case, the "thing" is the creation of chattels of the state.

    Let's say that we didn't have a penal system, but a system of forced labor instead. You got convicted of a crime, and you were sent to pick cotton on farms in the south.

    And there were two types of people advocating an increase in the number of people sentenced to go pick cotton:

    1) People who live in high-crime neighborhoods, and/or people who live in legitimate if misplaced fear of being a crime victim

    2) The people who own the farms and get the free labor.

    Which group of people would be morally worse?

    The "self-interest" of the prison guard union is like the "self-interest" of slavers. Or rapists.

  • Fluffy||

    I have a lot of respect for the men who put themselves in harms way to keep murderers and rapists in custody.

    I would respect them too, if that's all that they did.

    Unfortunately, as soon as they take even one teeny-tiny baby step into the kind of lobbying they do, all of the credit they get for doing their difficult jobs disappears for me.

    It's extraordinarily morally problematic to lobby for laws that increase the number of incarcerations when you benefit materially from those incarcerations.

    As I have said before, the moment they do this even a little bit, they become a slaveholder's lobby. They should resurrect Zombie Henry Clay and make him the head of their union. They probably told Brown that if he didn't give them that sweetheart contract Zombie Jefferson Davis was going to come lead them as they plunged California into civil war.

  • alan||

    My solution.

    1. Bring back the designation of Outlaw Status for violent criminals.

    2. Fire 90% of the cops and guards.

    3. Release the prisoners.

    4. Happy hunting, motherfuckers!

  • ||

    props to the cop union here that gave the fired officer some money...

    http://policelink.monster.com/.....-down-call

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