Correctional action plan

A couple of feisty Democratic legislators are digging into the powerful prison-guards union. It’s time for Arnold to join the team.

Illustration By B.Z.

Now that the state’s prison guards have made their verrrry generous offer to consider taking lower raises in exchange for the state giving the guards’ union certain weighty management powers—such as a big say in which prisons are closed—we would do well to remember that most of the guards require no more than a general equivalency diploma and simple training to get their jobs.

We’d also do well to remember that these guards fail to control raging drug use in the prisons, probably due to corrupt guards moving drugs past the security gates—a scandal that one state legislator is digging into. And that the guards practice an intense code of silence that prevents wardens from identifying guards who enjoy touching off riots, beating inmates and so on. And that the guards cannot control the prison gangs who control sections of certain prisons.

And that—well, you get the idea.

Forget giving this union a beachhead in major management decisions. Persistent rumors that some weaker wardens give the guards a bigger role than ordering the paper clips is worrisome enough.

In early 2003, I called correctional and prison experts in several urban states to find out whom, exactly, our California prison-guards union had patterned itself after.

I mean, who on earth dreamed up this disturbing recipe, in which 28,000 guards send a hefty $60 each in monthly dues—in California, that’s a staggering $21 million annually—to fat-cat union bosses who then funnel it into a massive lobbying system that throws its weight around in statewide politics that have, at times, little to do with prisons, guards or unions?

But I couldn’t find a single guards union anything like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

No, California is unlucky enough to have the most Machiavellian, drunk-with-power prison-guards union in America. When do we get our prize?

Only the California Legislature so fears the ability of the guards union to hector legislators out of office with piles of campaign cash that most of our legislators carry out the union’s demands like bag men working for a mob boss. Only Sacramento’s statehouse has allowed things to devolve so very low.

Eventually, this awful union will really trip itself up. Sun will shine on its inner workings. Some key figure on the inside will finally say, “Enough!” and the stories will come spilling out to legislative investigators or to Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

But until that day, a handful of scrappy and smart Democratic women are leading the charge against the guards union. Two key people to watch are state Senator Jackie Speier of Hillsborough and state Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, who’ve shown grit on this issue for quite some time.

Speier is a fearless woman who pushes issues other legislators haven’t got the nerve to tackle. Her courageous streak was forged in part by her experience with deep personal tragedy. It left her more clear-headed than most of us about what’s important in life. Romero ably has taken up a cause championed by another outspoken member of the Latino Caucus from Los Angeles— a man reviled by the guards union, the now-retired Senator Richard Polanco.

“The prison guards have extraordinary power over politicians in California,” said Speier. “Why do you think district attorneys in California won’t take cases with videos showing prison guards hitting inmates 40 and 50 times, which is illegal? … DAs won’t prosecute because in Kings County, a DA who took on a correctional guard was targeted, and he was driven out of office.”

The guards were granted tremendous new powers by Gray Davis, who, Speier says, believed he needed them in order to cement his re-election in 2002. “He turned the keys over to the guards, in virtually every way,” she said. “Their contract is a blank check—it takes controls away from the wardens, such as allowing … sick-leave abuse that is choking the very veracity of their budget.”

She and Romero both believe Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger must take back control. But Schwarzenegger made lots of us nervous by choosing as his negotiator on the union’s contract a recent longtime member of the guards—who says he may return to the union after this. Speier, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Government Oversight, said, “It’s a conflict of interest, and I have told the administration I oppose this.”

Let’s all second that, shall we?

I wonder if the governor understands that the puffed-up guards union views itself, and not elected weenies like the governor and legislators, as the true power in Sacramento?

According to Richard Steffen, Speier’s staff director and an expert on the prisons, when the guards union negotiated its current five-year contract in late 2001, the Gray Davis team—representing the full weight of the state—got taken by the “far better staffed, better prepared and better resourced” union team. This in a state with an annual operating budget of more than $70 billion. How pathetic.

“Davis got rolled,” Steffen said. During the marathon contract talks, the guards union had a series of fresh teams ready to replace its negotiators each time a team got tired. The Davis team had no stand-ins and grew tired and confused.

Why would Davis allow negotiations to get to the point where his side was attending marathon sessions that put it at a disadvantage, and handed a huge advantage to the other side?

Giveaway Gray was one of the worst negotiators California has ever seen. Remember his performance during the energy crisis? During the prison-guard talks, the state selected a crack negotiator who knew the issues. But then, Steffen said, “This negotiator was so good, the union started demanding he be replaced. So—get this—[the Davis administration] agreed to replace him with someone else far less aware. Incredible!”

The decision was made by Marty Morgenstern, former chief of the Department of Personnel Administration, one of many do-nothing bureaucrats Davis hired. Morgenstern, thankfully, was fired by Schwarzenegger. But then Schwarzenegger’s new guy picks a longtime guard to do his negotiating?

It’s starting to feel like Davis revisited.

Here’s how bad the current contract with the guards is for California: They get a $200 million raise now and about $200 million next year and the year after that. Unless Schwarzenegger rolls it back, it amounts to a 37-percent raise. They also get extra vacation time and huge overtime and sick-pay loopholes.

The contract is freighted with bizarre concessions. If prison management calls up an “intermittent” guard (a substitute who fills in for the sick), but the “intermittent” officer claims to be sick, too, the intermittent officer gets paid as if he worked. Follow me? I’ll quote Steffen so we’re clear: “If they call an intermittent officer at home to replace a sick guard, and the intermittent officer says, ‘No, I’m sick,’ the intermittent officer gets paid as if they worked that day. True, true.”

Why did the Legislature approve such an outrageous contract? Because the union uses fear to control our Legislature.

The union targets politicians for ruin and then gets rid of them. In the high-desert race between Republicans Sharon Runner and Phil Wyman, the prison guards poured $260,000 to oust Wyman. Wyman had supported private prison programs. Wyman’s vote had not hurt the union in any way, but he had dared to go against their orders. As public punishment, the guards drove him out. The guards meddle in city-council races having no bearing on prison issues. After Polanco beseeched the Legislature not to approve the “terrible deal” with Davis, the union targeted Polanco in his run for Los Angeles City Council. Tawdry leaks forced Polanco to exit the race, and the Los Angeles Times fingered the guards as the mastermind. But the union steadfastly denied it.

This was done simply as punishment because Polanco had been uppity. Polanco got such negative press, he decided not to even run for the job.

Davis fared much better. Not long after cutting the contract, in March 2002, Davis received a check for $251,000 from the guards union. Eventually, Davis took $2 million from the union. Don Novey, then the shrewd president of the union, rather humorously denied a connection between the check that traveled from the guards to Davis and the fat raise that traveled from Davis to the guards.

In 2002, Novey insisted to a newspaper that the $251,000 check “had nothing to do with” the stunning contract.

Steffen said the shams between Davis and the union continued, with Davis “making sure the five-year contract had the huge raise, but no raise in the first year. This way Davis could go on the campaign trail and tell voters, ‘I made sure the prison guards got no raise this year!’”

Speier and Romero are not just doing their jobs; they’re behaving heroically by taking on the guards. Both are respected, and both are clean. The guards are no doubt frustrated in not being able to tar them somehow. I am quite sure they are trying.

If Speier and Romero have the guts to pick up the ball, let’s pray our new governor who wants to “blow up the boxes” has the nerve to get into this game and run with it.