The Golden State's Iron Bars

How California prison guards became the country's most powerful union


"To borrow from Martin Luther King Jr.," the head of the California prison guards union said a few years ago, "today I have a dream. I have a dream that the bricks and mortar that were planned to build new prisons will instead be used to build new schools…that an ounce of prevention will be embraced instead of a pound of cure."

The place was the 2007 California Democratic convention. The speaker was Mike Jimenez, who had become president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) in 2002. Jimenez was attempting to set a new tone for the prison guards, who under his predecessor Don Novey had become the Golden State's most powerful, feared, and obstructive public-sector union. And in at least one way, Jimenez succeeded: The tone of CCPOA became far more moderate than it had been under Novey's hard-line leadership.

Unfortunately, the group's actual behavior has changed barely, if at all. The prison guards union regularly makes seven-figure contributions both to political candidates and to ballot initiative campaigns, nearly all of it with the goal of preventing any decline in the state's bulging prison population. CCPOA gave $1 million to the successful 2008 campaign against Proposition 5, which would have reduced sentences and parole times for nonviolent drug offenders while emphasizing drug treatment over prison. The initiative failed by nearly 20 percentage points.

To maintain California's prison-industrial complex, CCPOA must also plow money into broader defenses of the status quo. In 2008 the union gave $250,000 to fight a legislative redistricting referendum and $2 million to oppose a change to the state's political term limit laws.

The union is no respecter of political party, having made large contributions to both Democratic and Republican governors and to legislative candidates from both parties. It has plenty of money to spare: According to a 2005 study by the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, CCPOA collects $21.9 million per year from its 31,000 members.

The prison guards' guild, which came into its current form only in the 1980s, can make such effective and generous contributions in part thanks to its unique organizing model. By remaining unaffiliated with other unions, CCPOA keeps more direct control over its own funds, allowing it to reward friends and punish enemies (though these two categories can shift over time). It funds and supports numerous PACs and tough-on-crime lobbying organizations, notably Crime Victims United and the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, both of which get most of their funding from CCPOA.

Although California's prison building boom began before the prison guards' arrival as a political force, the union has been both a supporter and a beneficiary of that expansion. Of the state's 33 prisons, 23 have been built since 1984. The state's incarcerated population, which declined slightly in the last three years after decades of growth, now stands at 170,000 or so.

CCPOA's most direct interest is in retaining the state's iron web of sentencing laws and its stringent "three strikes" regime. The union's $101,000 donation to the Proposition 184 campaign in 1994 helped create the most punitive three-strikes law in the United States, which among other things allows any felony conviction (not limited to "serious or violent offenses") to trigger a sentence enhancement. In 2004 Proposition 66, a heavily promoted effort to amend that system, went down to defeat. The California secretary of state's office lists $71,000 in anti-66 spending from CCPOA, while a report from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center cites a $500,000 contribution to the No on 66 campaign. The pattern holds for attempts to reform incarceration laws in the legislature: If it involves imprisoning fewer Californians, you'll find the prison guards union on the other side.

 While this all makes sense from a public choice perspective, it's unexpected in the context of union politics, which Americans usually think of only in the context of featherbedding and rigid contract negotiations. The prison guards union does its share of that: Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite his strong support for the three strikes law, made an implacable enemy of CCPOA during his failed 2005 campaign for a slate of union reform initiatives. But CCPOA's efforts distort California public policy in ways that go far beyond overtime spiking.

That may be changing, in large part thanks to the crisis in incarceration and prison crowding that the CCPOA itself helped create. In 2009 a panel of federal judges ordered the state to release 40,000 inmates to reduce overcrowding. As of this writing the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court, and CCPOA has weighed in with an amicus brief agreeing that crowded prisons have become a danger to guards. The union also has fallen in line with Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to move lower-priority prisoners down to county facilities and review some sentencing guidelines. 

The union has been well rewarded for this cooperation. Brown was on an enemies list put out by the CCPOA in 1999, when he was mayor of Oakland. His relationship with the union improved markedly when he was campaigning for attorney general in 2006 and has gotten cozier since. The CCPOA endorsed Brown's candidacy for governor last year, and after taking office the governor delivered a generous new contract. Brown presented the contract as an austerity measure that will save the state $308 million this year, after which costs will spike again. But this claim was shot down by the state's legislative analyst, who also noted that the new contract courts a long-term spending explosion by eliminating an 80-day limit on unused vacation time.

"I think CCPOA has changed in important ways, in its rhetoric and its openness to new ideas and people formerly seen as enemies," says Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota sociologist and the author of The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers' Union in California. "But thus far they have shown no interest in sentencing reform. They have opposed all serious efforts to reform sentencing." 

It's time for the prison guards' lobbying to match the rhetoric. For years the guards have operated on the principle that there are no strangers, only prisoners who haven't been incarcerated yet. The state can't afford that thinking anymore.  

Tim Cavanaugh (tcavanaugh@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.