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 ( is a senior editor at reason.

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  1. Public unions are a fucking abomination — they cannot be allowed to form in the first place. And it’s California, so nothing’s going to get fixed anyway.

    1. The purpose of the union, according to progressive mythology, is to defend the worker from the ravages of the capitalist. But in today’s reality the unions exist to defend lazy ass government employees from the anger of the voter.

      1. it’s both, actually

  2. Alt text: I’m so powerful I had my portrait taken on the shitter.

    1. *Bends over to approach reporter*

      Run along now, dear peasant — your ass is next in line for our five-start prison gang-rape season!

      1. I’d like to see some academic feminist write on the use of the threat of prison rape as a tool for state control.

        It actually fits in quite well with their narratives about rape being pretty much the guiding force for society throughout most of human history.

        1. They only care if you’re talking about female prisoners. They could care less about the men.

          1. Actually “could care less” implies they are neutral on the topic. As they are rapidly hostile towards have of humanity they see the practice of gang rape of men in prison as virtuous.

            1. half – not- have

    2. You know he really does look like he is taking a massive dump.

  3. Hey, running concentration camps is hard.

    1. I imagine if most of your prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, that makes it a little easier.

      1. That makes it more like a gulag, maybe?

        1. I like where this is going…

        2. A few people have stated that non-violent drug offenders are essentially political prisoners. I’d have to agree.

          1. And then the others will argue that since they were given such harsh, lengthy sentences and placed with violent criminals, that we shouldn’t let them out because they had to become violent criminals in order to stay alive.

  4. People have the right, and should, to organize and advocate their own interests. The situation does not get out of control like this unless the government allows it or even encourages it.

    1. People have the right, and should, to organize and advocate their own interests. The situation does not get out of control like this unless the government allows it


    2. They are the government dumbnuts. The government should not be able to organize and advocate for it’s own interests from itself.

      1. free speech for me, not for thee, iow

      2. They aren’t the government. They represent employees of the government and are often a thorn in the side of the state of California.

  5. “Music and passion
    were always in fashion
    at the CCPOA…
    We fell in love.”

    1. I’ve got a plan for all the minorities

      Send’em to the California Youth Authorities

      From San Francisco Urban Elementary
      to Pelican Bay State Penitentiary

      There they can work for the master race and always wear a happy face

      Close your eyes, it can’t happen here
      Big Brother in a squad car’s comin’ near

      Come enjoy the surf and the sun
      and help California number one !

      1. “and help California number one !”

        needs some work.

  6. …..Liberal-Progressive met Tough-On-Crime? They were introduced by Conservative.

    1. I’d say, rather, they were beaten bloody into a shotgun wedding by Conservative. There’s only so much “soft on crime” tar you can spread about before everyone is stuck.

      1. Shotgun wedding it may have been, but true love has blossomed.

  7. Twain (more or less):

    “If you want to see the dregs of humanity, go and visit one of our prisons. The inmates will be there, too.”

  8. It’s the Stanford Prison Experiment, writ fiscal.

  9. Go read Ted Nugent’s vomit-inducing article,
    Supreme Court puts the innocent to death.

    He argues we should be locking up even more nonviolent offenders, despite his history of getting convicted for poaching in California and getting off with just a fine.

    Maybe he’ll run afoul of California’s gun laws next. That’d be fitting justice. He’s a classic example of “Freedom for me, but not for you”.

    1. Go read Ted Nugent’s vomit-inducing article, Supreme Court puts the innocent to death.

      He argues we should be locking up even more nonviolent offenders, despite his history of getting convicted for poaching in California and getting off with just a fine.

      Maybe he’ll run afoul of California’s gun laws next. That’d be fitting justice. He’s a classic example of “Freedom for me, but not for you”.

      1. Is it me or does he tend to exaggerate a lot?

      2. Wang Dang, Sweet Pyongyang…

    2. He’s a single-issue asshat. Nobody gives a shit about him.

      1. A single-issue asshat who on one hand demands unlimited gun rights, and on the other hand thinks anyone (except him) who violates the law should be summarily executed.

        Right wing conservatives don’t seem to understand that the right to self defence goes hand-in-hand with the right not to be cruelly and unusually punished.

        1. He’s pretty much a neoconservative who’s great on gun rights, and crappy on most other things — a typical nobody, to be frank.

          1. He’s also a top notch hypocrite. I attended one of his concerts in 1978. He took the paycheck, and played his ass off, and never mentioned the aroma of pot wafting about. And in Wheeling, WV in 1978, there was plenty of pot being smoked in concerts. Ah, the good old days…

        2. Using him as an example is retarded. The guy is a-typical in every way, and dumb as a post to boot.

  10. Eat shit and die, Nugent.

  11. Other than murder, it’s hard to think of things more evil than imprisoning people for profit. The leaders of the CCPOA are vermin.

    1. Yeah. Slavery.

      1. I believe the federal government has experience with ordering a state to stop enslaving people, and the state refusing to comply.

  12. This is why Wisconsin’s politically selective gutting of unions — knifing the teachers and maintenance people while empowering the cops — will be such a disaster.

    When all the government sectors are unionized, they have to compete with each other on more-or-less equal terms for the limited available resources. Guards and teachers essentially compete for government funds for their respective institutions. Ditto cops and state-hospital nurses, or firemen and juvenile-hall staff.

    But now, in Wisconsin, the cops will have union leverage all to themselves. They will grab and grab and grab from every other government sector (schools, public works, medical) and bulk up their own sector. Shiny new police precincts and cruisers with satellite radio while everything else that the public needs rots.

    If you are going to knife the unions, you should do like Ohio and knife them all. The Wisconsin method is not only politically cowardly; it is pernicious and destructive as a matter of civics.

    Of course, we might take the utopian view of calling upon the public to get off of their candy a$$es on election day and actually voting, so that local elections are not dominated by narrow special interests groups that can take command when turnout is so abysmally low, but that’s just way too much, eh?

  13. The act that the CCPOA has ANY influence on public policy is reprehensible, it should be illegal for them to operate P.A.C.’S in any way,shape,form or fashion.

  14. Every time I think I’ve heard it all, I have the misfortune to come across something like this. UGH!!!! Does it ever end??? We the people are nothing but worthless pawns in somebody’s crappy chess game. When are we going to stand up for our rights?

  15. California Democratic convention. The speaker was Mike Jimenez

  16. Jesus, how did we ever function without a law and/or regulation for everything?

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  17. thanks tim for your great work we have been quoted some of it here

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