Walk the line

Mike Jimenez’s personal turning point puts his corrections union at a crossroads

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association appears at a crossroads, with adoption of some positions its leaders once would have derided as dangerously liberal.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association appears at a crossroads, with adoption of some positions its leaders once would have derided as dangerously liberal.

Illustration By Doug Boehm

A regular contributor to the SN&R, Sasha Abramsky first published a version of this story in the current issue of Mother Jones.

“Five years ago, I had a lock on things,” says Mike Jimenez, the president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, while taking a break from a board of directors meeting at a downtown Holiday Inn. With his glasses darkening in the sun, his purple-patterned tie, slicked-back hair and trimmed beard, the 46-year-old looks more like an aging rock guitarist than the head of the nation’s largest prison guards’ union. “Then I got questions with my own life,” he continues.

“I have a 19-year-old son. He was having interventions with law enforcement. Drug-related. And I watched how the system treated him. It’s assembly-line justice. I was totally taken aback by it.”

In a marked departure from the analysis of former union leaders—in particular the infamous Don Novey, his immediate predecessor, and a man who believed most any tough-on-crime measure would benefit CCPOA members—Jimenez has started to question the efficacy of locking low-level offenders up “in an institution where they become worse.” Since these are the very institutions his union members work within, the transformation of his union has triggered one of Sacramento’s most fascinating sagas.

Five years ago, the CCPOA was in a very different place, a powerhouse in Sacramento politics—it was a top donor to Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis—and one of the most powerful labor organizations in California. Its tough-on-crime stances were routinely converted into legislation that helped create the state’s current high level of incarceration. Candidates who crossed the CCPOA often saw their political careers derailed by attack ads sponsored by the union.

Today, however, the CCPOA, like Jimenez himself, who was elected to lead the union in 2003, seems to be at a crossroads. From the start of his administration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has viewed the guards as a special-interest group standing in the way of prison reform and has blamed them for many of the woes facing the state’s bloated prison system. At press time, the most recent round of contract negotiations were stalled over wages, a radical departure from years gone by, when the CCPOA routinely received generous pay increases, even during lean years. This led to California’s prison guards being better paid than guards in any other state. The state presented the CCPOA with what it termed a “last, best and final offer” this spring, and the CCPOA responded with a blunt “no-go.” And so, the standoff continues.

Mike Jimenez, president of the state’s mighty prison guards union, experienced the corrections system firsthand when it treated his troubled son to “assembly-line justice.” After that, he decided to rewrite his job description.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As the CCPOA’s relationship with its former allies has deteriorated, it has adopted some positions it once would have derided as dangerously liberal. Last year, it released a policy paper that called for rolling back some mandatory-minimum sentencing, restoring judges’ discretion over sentencing and giving correctional officials more input in setting parole dates. It also advocated spending more on sick and mentally ill inmates, re-entry facilities for parolees and investing far more money in training for guards. Common sense stuff, maybe, but these positions aligned the CCPOA with such reformist groups as the Prison Law Office.

As significantly, the CCPOA has come out against Schwarzenegger’s multibillion-dollar prison-expansion plan, Assembly Bill 900, arguing it will simply lead to even more overcrowded prisons and thus ever-more dangerous working conditions for guards. After all, nothing’s more likely to generate a prison riot than crowding hundreds of men into gyms and dormitories with too few guards to adequately monitor them. CCPOA even filed an amicus brief in favor of the attempt by the Prison Law Office to get a panel of judges to cap the state’s prison population. Perhaps partly to gain PR points in its contract battle, the union has also said it would set aside 1 percent of its members’ earnings to set up programs to keep low-income kids out of the criminal-justice system.

Jimenez speaks frankly about how his teenage son got into drugs, went to a boot camp in Utah (“It cost me every penny I made for six months”), was charged with a string of low-end felonies, dropped out of high school and told his father he had nothing to look forward to in life.

“I spent a lot of money, got him attorneys, went to great lengths to make sure he met the terms of his probation,” recalls Jimenez. And it occurred to him that there are plenty more young men and women who fall into the same patterns. “They get involved with the criminal-justice system. It’s a terrible reality. I realized there are a lot of kids in there who shouldn’t be.”

The realization completely changed the way Jimenez saw his job. “We plan to fail,” Jimenez, a Republican, says of current correctional policy. “You can put all the police officers you want on the street, but if we don’t give those kids hope of a future, of a life, of an ability to make something of themselves, they don’t care about life. Nobody’s willing to forgive anymore.”

Jimenez’s revelation has proved contagious within the CCPOA hierarchy. Even Lance Corcoran, a one-time Novey sidekick, comes off sounding like a bleeding heart. “I’m not saying I’m sympathetic to people who go to prison,” he says, a little hesitantly, “but I am empathetic. I don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily.” He says the guards’ union has been talking with prison-reform organizations, and the two sides have found some common ground that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. As he explains, “Safer places for their loved ones to live in mean safer places for our members to work.”