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.