Decline of the empire

The guards union has taken a blow to its power and prestige, but it will still try to target politicians and prosecutors for elimination

Illustration By Doug Boehm

The Center for Investigative Reporting (at provided financial assistance for this story.

In the not-too-distant future, young and eager prison-guard recruits graduating from the state’s training academy in Galt may get to hear stories from the old-timers about the golden years of the occupation. “Now, back when Gray Davis was governor,” a story might begin, “things were different.” The veteran guards would tell tales of the days when the brotherhood’s respected leaders could casually stroll into the governor’s office, take a seat and demand action on the issue of the day. While any generic story about the glory days tends to be romanticized or exaggerated, tales of the prison guards’ close relationship with the former governor of the Golden State might prove challenging to embellish.

After Davis took the helm of the state in 1999, the leadership of the prison-guard union, officially known as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), enjoyed access to California’s top bureaucrat that the state’s other 20 employee unions could only fantasize about. Davis received $2.3 million from the CCPOA for his first campaign, and another $712,000 while he was in office. The union’s investment paid enormous dividends, including the most lucrative prison-guard employment contract since the union was founded at Folsom Prison in 1957. The CCPOA also had leverage over most of the Legislature. Since 1994, the union has donated at least $4.8 million to 100 of the 120 legislators that have held office, and the friends it has made as a result have helped ensure its expansive agenda was given serious consideration by receptive ears. The legislators it didn’t have the attention of were often targeted for removal from office by bankrolling opponent candidates in the next election cycle. “If the guards don’t like you, they’re willing to spend money to get you,” longtime GOP lawmaker Bill Leonard told the media last year. “Very few special interests go negative quite like they do. That certainly adds to their power—you don’t want to be considered hostile to them.” The message was as subtle as getting hit between the eyes with a police baton: Support the CCPOA’s agenda, or suffer the consequences.

But on October 7, 2003, the CCPOA itself experienced the feeling of a metaphorical police baton between the eyes, when Davis became only the second governor in American history to be recalled by the electorate. Shellshocked, the union could only watch from the sidelines as its $3 million investment was shown the door. Immediately following Davis to the ranks of the unemployed was another key CCPOA ally and Davis appointee, Edward Alameida, then director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC). After the recall and before he could be fired, Alameida resigned from his post.

On November 17, 2004, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn into office, and the CCPOA’s virtually unrestricted access to the state’s top official abruptly ended. The Republican made it clear that business as usual for the union was over, and a friction quickly developed between the two political players.

“[Schwarzenegger] and his administration have decided that they want absolutely no input whatsoever. And so, we’ve got a really contentious relationship right now,” explained CCPOA Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran.

The governor quickly appointed Roderick Hickman as director of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (YACA). YACA oversees all the prison and correctional agencies in the state, and Hickman adopted a similar closed-door policy toward the guard union, further infuriating the group. In the past, union representatives were able to contact virtually any top correctional official or warden with a phone call or visit. Now, Hickman has mandated that all CCPOA inquiries be directed to Brigid Hanson, YACA deputy secretary of labor, a new position created to funnel all union concerns to one person.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has told members of the prison-guards union that they are <i>personae non gratae</i>.

Photo By Larry Dalton

CCPOA is indignant at the change in protocol and at not being able to communicate directly with decision makers, which it says Hanson isn’t. “The communication [with Hanson] is nil,” said Corcoran. “Hickman’s got a very insular top management team, star chamber, who, you present your information to his filter, the filter then brings the information to Rod, where he can make a very cold, analytical decision without involving himself in the passion of labor relations.”

Corcoran, who resembles a stocky fireplug, seems to relish the opportunity to take on the state correctional bureaucracy during what he says could be a temporary stint with the union, since he holds an elected position. If he loses a future election, he will return to work as a guard, he said. He identifies himself with recent prison-system whistleblowers who have come forward despite career ruination and, in some cases, death threats. “In many cases, when I hear about whistleblowers, I’m like ‘OK, I’ve been a whistleblower for years. Welcome to the club.’ We blow the whistle on management all the time,” he said. Is that a fair comparison? “Well, I don’t wear a bulletproof vest, but I find some of the antics of some [whistleblowers] to be really melodramatic.”

The homegrown Corcoran graduated from Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks in 1982. In 1986, before getting a degree at Sierra College, he became a prison guard, and he worked the line for nine years at the California Correctional Center state prison in Susanville. He has worked as a CCPOA officer since 1995 and now is thinking about going to law school. But, for now, Corcoran is one of several union leaders charged with leading the CCPOA through turbulent times.

Several state Capitol insiders say the union is diminished as a potent political force and will never again reclaim the influence and top-to-bottom access it had in the past. The CCPOA says the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, and other legislative insiders concur.

Corcoran bristles at the suggestion that the union is disabled, and he claims that the CCPOA still has the respect and support of the Legislature. “I don’t know anyone who’s counting us completely out. Actually, I would relish that. I love to be underestimated. Go ahead and underestimate CCPOA,” he said. In fact, the political landscape is littered with former elected officials, most now in the private sector, who underestimated the union. The CCPOA has taken out state senators, members of the Assembly, and county district attorneys by directing its enormous resources and political acumen to opposition candidates more sympathetic to the union’s agenda.

It directs four full-time lobbyists from its own two-story compound in West Sacramento, complete with a massive black granite monument to fallen prison employees. The building houses the union’s executive and administrative offices, legal staff and in-house member-magazine production.

But the loss of easy access to the governor—who still holds the ultimate power to veto legislation and disapprove state employee contracts—and a dramatically reduced influence on the state’s correctional-system bureaucracy have put the union in a more weakened position than it is accustomed to. The governor also has promised the public dramatic reforms to the adult and youth correctional systems.

University of California, Berkeley, law professor Frank Zimring believes the glory days of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) are over for good.

Courtesy Of Frank Zimring

But the union represents 31,000 guards, counselors, parole agents and even some management staff in both. The CCPOA’s power to mobilize the rank and file to either cooperate with or obstruct changes is considerable. In fact, it already has used that power to frustrate parole-system reforms that the union claims are a detriment to public safety.

Frank Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law makes a convincing case that a perfect storm of political conditions in the 1990s resulted in the union’s rise to unprecedented power. Many of those conditions since have reversed, according to Zimring, and the party is over. “I think the smart money would bet against [CCPOA] coming back, because it really was a [statistical aberration]—that is to say, what they had briefly in this state was unprecedented in terms of political influence,” he said.

Zimring has an exhaustive résumé, including a stint as the director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago Law School and fellowships at several research institutions. He is also the author or co-author of many books on criminal- and juvenile-justice issues. He traces the beginning of the union’s rise to power to 1994, when the so-called three-strikes law, backed by the CCPOA, went into effect during the first Pete Wilson administration.

Three strikes actually was born in 1992 from the brutal murder of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds outside a late-night restaurant in Fresno. Less than a year later, the nation watched in shock when 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered. Public anger and fear of crime were high when Wilson sought a second term in 1994. Wilson was embroiled in a close race against Democrat Kathleen Brown, who, at one point, was ahead in the polls. In a panic, Wilson exploited the public’s basest fears and adopted a classic scorched-earth, tough-on-crime platform.

“Wilson was desperate in 1994; he had an approval rating which looked like Saddam Hussein’s, a 30-percent approval rating. So, he needed that [electorate] anger, and crime was his issue,” said Zimring, who recites the historical minutia of the era without taking a breath. The plan successfully tapped public angst, and Wilson was elected to a second term. The CCPOA gave Wilson more than $1.5 million over two campaigns.

The strategy did not escape notice by Davis, who ended his term as state controller in 1994 and became lieutenant governor the following year. The apprentice later would resurrect the tough-on-crime blueprint in his own quest for the governorship. “Gray Davis was simply a student of the Pete Wilson school of government,” explained Zimring.

As expected, when Davis ran for governor in 1998 against Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, a hard-line approach to criminal-justice issues was a major emphasis of his campaign. Davis’ replay of the Wilson plan worked, and he began his first term as governor in 1999. The CCPOA played a huge role in Davis’ successful campaign, providing the candidate with $2.1 million in funding, including strategically placed television ads. “Really enormous amounts of money flowed from the union to the governor, and the governor was a man who was very interested in enormous amounts of money,” Zimring said.

Verbal sparks flew when CCPOA President Mike Jimenez, right, and Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran, left, were compelled to defend the union’s lucrative contract at an antagonistic legislative hearing last year.

Photo By Stephen James

But it was more than the CCPOA’s financial support that allowed the union its close relationship with Davis; it was also Davis’ fear of being portrayed as less than a hard-liner on crime-related issues. That meant that any credible special-interest group had the power to redefine, or merely threaten to redefine, where the most extreme hard-line position on crime was. And the CCPOA had that credibility. “They had the power to expose him by creating a tougher line than he was willing to follow,” Zimring said.

Throughout his term in office, Davis intended never to be caught on the soft side of a crime issue, “and that created a political weakness,” according to Zimring. “That meant that the union itself could have a very substantial, potentially threatening presence on the political landscape. Because, if they wanted something, he was in danger of choosing between either supporting it or appearing to be soft on crime,” he explained. Davis was also vulnerable because he had the free-spending habits of a Democrat but needed to neutralize right-wing constituencies with the crime issue.

During Davis’ term, the union was able to convince the governor to close three privately run, non-union prisons and to sign off on a five-year labor agreement that eventually could increase annual prison-guard salaries to $73,000. Because union dues are based on a percentage of each member’s income, high salaries translate to engorged union coffers. But the deal was about more than just wages. Other terms of the agreement allowed guards to dictate which shifts they worked, and another provision permitted union attorneys to obtain information about investigations against guards, making disciplinary actions more difficult. Sick-leave requirements were relaxed, which eventually resulted in massive increases in overtime compensation, with some CCPOA members earning over $100,000 per year.

State Senator Jackie Speier said the ramifications of the contract are hard to exaggerate. The salary increases and sick leave, overtime and other policy tweaks have cost the state millions in unnecessary and unbudgeted corrections costs. “The overruns in the Department of Corrections are obscene: $500 million a year,” she said. Last year, Schwarzenegger blew an opportunity to renegotiate the contract and substantively reduce prison operating costs, according to Speier. “The governor says he is tearing up the credit card, but he hasn’t torn up the [CDC] credit card,” she said. Speier attributes much of the problem to a provision in the contract known as “post and bid.” Under post and bid, which applies to 70 percent of CDC employees, the union decides who will hold what job and what shifts they will work. The system has resulted in sick-leave and overtime excesses. “The prison system is not being run by the managers or the administrators; it’s being run by the union,” she said.

During the Davis years, the union also successfully orchestrated the death of legislation that would have given the attorney general more power to prosecute prison guards accused of misconduct.

Asked for his response to Zimring’s implication that the union got more than its share of wages and perks under Davis, Corcoran didn’t need any time to ponder the question—he apparently has covered this ground before. “I will remind people that we went from 1995 to 1998 without a contract, so the ’90s weren’t necessarily our heyday,” he said. He does concede that the Davis administration was more union-friendly. “Certainly, I think all public employees had a better shake under the Davis administration than we have under Republican administrations, because those administrations tend to point toward the evil public-employee union bosses, somehow making us into these cloak-and-dagger figures that are really quite cartoonish, and it’s very inaccurate, as well,” he said.

Corcoran also points out that the union did not get involved in the Davis recall process. “If we had done more at that point, it probably would have been counterproductive. The allegation was that [the recall] was a pay-to-play scenario, and so if we had gotten heavily involved, the opposition would have said, ‘See, that’s the prison guards for you, trying to buy this.’”

Senator Gloria Romero, right, holds up the book-sized guards-union contract. Romero initially called for the contract to be renegotiated, but she later backed down, according to Senator Jackie Speier, left, who didn’t.

Photo By Stephen James

The declining status of the CCPOA today, according to Zimring, is what a statistician calls a regression toward the mean: a natural correction that is putting the union back in its traditional place. “The situation was unusual during the Davis administration, and what you have in 2005 is a much more normal relationship between a public-employee union and the governmental organization that employs its members,” he said. In the Legislature, 40 union-sponsored bills have become law since 1994, and that, too, is an aberration. “There are very few states where the prison-guards union writes the laws. California was, in that regard, for one brief and non-shining moment, all by itself,” he said.

The current governor doesn’t have the same vulnerabilities as Davis, because, for starters, Schwarzenegger is politically stronger, with a high level of public support, according to Zimring. Davis entered office with an approval rating of 54 percent and eventually so disillusioned the public that by July 2002, he had an abysmal 24-percent approval rating. More importantly, because Schwarzenegger is a Republican, “he has a more natural hard-line constituency, and he doesn’t have to bend over backwards or bend the crime issue,” thus neutralizing the leverage the CCPOA used on Davis. Finally, crime itself is a much less important issue to the electorate than it has been in the past, partly because the crime rate has declined and also “because we’re just moving away from that extraordinary and particularly acrimonious juncture in not only the California politics of crime, but the national politics of crime as well,” he said. “And the further away we get from 1994, the safer it is to exist in the middle of the road on issues of crime and punishment.”

In his 2005 State of the State address, Schwarzenegger proclaimed that one of his top priorities was cleaning up the correctional system in California. “This is an agency in which there has been too much political influence, too much union control and too little management courage and accountability,” he said. Last week, Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh was diplomatic when asked for an update on the governor’s current opinion of the union. “The way I would characterize the governor’s relationship with the union is that it’s a professional relationship. They are an entity that we negotiate with, but we will always negotiate with the interests of the California taxpayer in the interest of creating a successful system of corrections,” she said.

The CCPOA has established that, if anything, it has a thick skin and utilizes a long-term, diversified strategy of developing political allies. Term limits have ensured that the Legislature will get a steady stream of freshmen legislators who usually make their way to state politics after serving time in local offices. Campaign-contribution records provided by the California secretary of state show that the CCPOA has been historically active in local as well as state races. The union’s CCPOA Local Political Action Committee has made contributions to local campaigns throughout the state, including to county-supervisor, city-council and mayoral races. The list also includes contributions to Superior Court judges and district-attorney candidates.

The union’s involvement in local district-attorney elections is one of its more controversial political activities. CCPOA critics charge that the union uses campaign contributions to support or remove incumbents in order to discourage criminal prosecutions of prison guards accused of using excessive force against inmates and other misconduct. The union has said that it gets involved in local district-attorney races because some county prosecutors eventually move up the food chain to become state-level lawmakers. “Today’s DA is tomorrow’s state senator,” Corcoran told California Lawyer Magazine in 2002. But Corcoran’s seemingly reasonable rationale is at least partly contradicted by his acknowledgment that virtually every district-attorney contest the union has been involved in has been in a county where there is at least one state prison, and the possibility of prison-guard prosecutions.

In the 1998 election cycle, incumbent Kings County District Attorney Greg Strickland was beaten by an opponent who received almost $30,000 in CCPOA support—a disproportionately large amount of campaign cash in the small county. Strickland told the media he was targeted by the union because he had convened a grand jury to investigate excessive-force allegations against guards at Corcoran State Prison. Strickland is now a deputy district attorney in Fresno County.

That same year, the district attorney of Del Norte County, Bill Cornell, also found himself in the union’s cross hairs. The county is home to the state’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, and Cornell successfully had prosecuted guard Jose Garcia for setting up inmate-on-inmate assaults and other wrongdoing. Cornell’s office also was investigating other CCPOA members at the prison. At the time of the election, Cornell said he had about $5,000 in his campaign war chest when the CCPOA provided his opponent $20,000, reportedly the largest political-campaign contribution ever made in the rural county. The union money funded mail-outs and a massive phone-call barrage that was so overwhelming it backfired and irritated voters instead of persuading them, according to news reports. Cornell was re-elected by a comfortable margin.

Current California Correctional Peace Officers Association member Donald Vodicka said the union’s public rationale for attempting to defeat Del Norte County District Attorney Bill Cornell was a lie.

Photo By Stephen James

Corcoran claims that the CCPOA targeted both district attorneys for removal because they were investigating or prosecuting guards, and not prosecuting prisoners who assaulted staff. Strickland said the claim that he didn’t prosecute inmate crimes is a crock. “That is absolutely, 100-percent false,” he said. “I had some of the longest prison sentences from inmate crimes, because most of them were in Corcoran, and they had strikes on them.” Strickland said he filed so many inmate assault cases that his office was backlogged.

Cornell also takes strong exception to the allegation and said that his office was one of two in the state that had the highest number of prosecutions for assaults on correctional officers. “There’s absolutely no truth to that. That’s blatantly a lie, and [Corcoran] knows that,” he said. Confronted with Cornell’s response, Corcoran backpedaled, saying he would have to double-check the claim with current CCPOA Vice President Chuck Alexander, who was president of the union’s Pelican Bay chapter at the time.

After talking with Alexander, Corcoran offered a revised rationalization. “Cornell may have been prosecuting inmate-on-inmate crimes, but he was not prosecuting gassing of staff members, and that was primarily the reason we went against him,” he said. “Gassing” is an inmate assault tactic in which a feces and urine concoction is thrown on a guard. Jim Fallman, a deputy district attorney in Cornell’s office who personally prosecuted inmate-on-staff assault cases, including gassings, said that Del Norte County court records prove that the office aggressively prosecuted those cases. He called Corcoran and Alexander’s claim disingenuous. “The reason behind why CCPOA didn’t like Cornell is because we were prosecuting Garcia and looking at other officers [for misconduct],” he said.

In fact, one of the CCPOA’s own members backs up Cornell and Fallman. Former Pelican Bay guard Donald Vodicka was the evidence officer at the prison in the mid-1990s (see “The code of silence”; SN&R Cover; May 13, 2004). In that position, Vodicka coordinated evidence and testified in staff assault cases prosecuted by Cornell’s office. Vodicka was stunned to hear Corcoran and Alexander’s claim that the office didn’t prosecute inmate assault and gassing cases. “I had to testify in gassing and assault-on-staff cases, and I went to court a lot of times,” he said. Vodicka said that Alexander convinced CCPOA headquarters to target the incumbent district attorney in retaliation for Cornell’s prosecution of Garcia and for initiating an investigation against Alexander for impeding the original investigation against Garcia. Corcoran called Vodicka’s version of events “ludicrous” and declined to comment further.

Although Alexander’s actions as the CCPOA Pelican Bay chapter president earned him a promotion to headquarters, chapter officers at other prisons have met with less-illustrious ends. In 2000, Lee Beck, the vice president of the union’s San Quentin chapter, pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine and heroin for sale and trying to smuggle the drugs into the prison. A year earlier, Danny Lee Williams, president of the CCPOA chapter at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, was convicted of child molestation. The union doesn’t defend Beck or Williams.

However, the union did financially support and still defends former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. In February, Shelley resigned amid allegations that his office misspent federal grant funds for political purposes and accepted tainted campaign contributions. A state Personnel Board report also confirmed complaints by Shelley staffers that the secretary was volatile, once slamming a door so hard the walls shook, and verbally abusive, ranting and shouting obscenities. Last October, Democrat Shelley was the guest speaker at the CCPOA’s annual wreath-laying ceremony. Corcoran said he knows Shelley well and believes that he is an honorable man. He attributes Shelley’s downfall as payback by Republicans for the 2000 ouster of Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Corcoran speculates that Shelley’s mistreatment of staff, if true, may be tied to genetics. “He is a man of Irish decent, and so am I. And I know that on occasion, I am very direct, and I have hurt feelings on occasion, and so I sympathize with that. It’s something you have to check yourself on constantly.”

The union uses three political action committees (PACs) in its own name, and other PACs, such as Crime Victims United, a victims’-advocacy group originally bankrolled by the CCPOA, to make contributions to state legislators, officeholders and initiative campaigns. By supporting a broad range of politicos at the state and local levels, the damage from the loss of a close ally, such as Davis, or the loss of an investment in the future, such as Shelley, is diminished. The total package—lobbyists, precisely targeted campaign funds and a disciplined rank and file—works. “They have great lobbyists in the capital to argue the policy merits of a bill. They have a great political organization that looks to identify friends to help them and looks to identify enemies and remove them. It’s a great model,” explained GOP lawmaker Leonard. Other special-interest groups—that can afford it—have, in fact, adopted the CCPOA strategy, according to Leonard. “I think more and more, groups see that as an effective way to send a message about their agenda. It’s being copied,” he said.

Senator Speier said that the model undeniably instills fear in state legislators and that the union has vowed to spend $1 million to defeat her when she runs for lieutenant governor at the end of her current term. “I think it’s incredibly intimidating,” she said. Corcoran concedes that the union is not a Speier supporter, but it hasn’t yet decided on how much it will spend to defeat her.

While the Schwarzenegger plan to reform the state correctional system is considered sound by criminal-justice authorities, the union’s 31,000 members who run the system day to day still hold enormous power over whether reforms are effectively carried out. Last year, the union told members not to cooperate with the governor’s plan to send many parole violators to community treatment programs instead of back to prison for parole violations.

In a memo to union members, Alexander, the former Pelican Bay chapter president and current CCPOA vice president, warned that the policy would be a “detriment to public safety.” Alexander advised members not to cooperate with the new plan, according to a report in the Orange County Register. According to the news report, Alexander instructed the parole-agent members: “Do not capitulate.” Corcoran said the memo was misconstrued and that Alexander actually was advising members to make sure they carefully documented situations in which parolees who previously would have been sent back to prison instead were referred to drug-treatment programs and other new parole model programs. The union predicts that that plan will backfire and eventually result in parolee crime sprees.

Walter Allen, director of the besieged California Youth Authority, has promised to adopt a new juvenile-justice-system model based on the current national model, the successful Missouri system. In Missouri, youth facilities don’t have guards, and all counseling staff members have four-year degrees. It remains to be seen to what degree the CCPOA will support the reforms, but union members posting commentary on an unofficial CCPOA Web site and blog, at, have balked at and derided CYA, CDC and parole-system reforms. Corcoran said he occasionally reads the site, but he contends it represents the views of a small minority of members and not the organization as a whole.

The CCPOA evolved long ago from a traditional union role—advocating for fair wages, benefits and working conditions—to having a substantial say in criminal-justice public policy. And, despite the current political climate, it appears to have no intention of relinquishing that power, despite recent changes and its conflicts with Schwarzenegger.

The union’s internal feelings about the governor are partly revealed by touring the CCPOA’s lavish West Sacramento headquarters. In two executive offices, the dominant pieces of furniture are pinball machines featuring themes of two of Schwarzenegger’s movies, The Terminator and Last Action Hero. Is there a message there? “We’re just big fans of the governor,” Corcoran wryly replied. “We’d like to see him make movies again.”