Who’s guarding the union?

The prison guards’ union likes to throw its considerable weight around Sacramento, yet it does a terrible job with inmates and overtime

Illustration By David Wagner

In the soap opera that is Statehouse politics in Sacramento, the role of leering villain is played by one unusually nasty organization that has struck all but a few legislators dumb with fear and is now brashly demonstrating that it also controls Governor Gray Davis.

I speak, of course, of the state prison guards’ union, a mostly incompetent body of workers who cannot keep the Mexican mafia and hard drugs from coursing through state prisons but upon whom Davis and the Legislature are heaping raises and highly inappropriate workplace concessions.

California prison guards have, by far, the most powerful—and the most bizarre—prison guards’ union in the nation. They are freaks of history and circumstance: 20,000-plus lightly trained men and women who, though their positions require only a GED (lieutenants and captains require more education), have risen to control the outcome of many legislative races and have convinced Governor Perfect Hair that his political fortune rests with them.

By using an updated form of Boss Tweed-style political intimidation, the guards’ union has become so feared that few Republicans or Democrats are willing to seriously challenge it. This explains the guards’ bloated salaries—guards with six years on the job soon will make more than University of California professors—padded staffing and needlessly soaring overtime as California faces down a huge budget deficit.

Although one nervous lobbyist—they are all nervous when speaking of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—told me in Sacramento that the union “loves to manipulate statistics on prisoner recidivism in California, making California look like the third- or fourth-worst in the U.S. The fact is we are the worst. More of our ex-cons go back to prison than in any other state.”

Actually, it’s the Department of Corrections that obscures the facts; the union merely capitalizes on it. According to the private Criminal Justice Institute, California tracks its prisoners for only two years, and almost all other states track prisoners for three to five years—some states much longer.

Prison officials stop tracking the parolees after two years in order to make California’s ex-cons look as if they’re not returning to prison. One California corrections expert, afraid to give his name, explained the Criminal Justice Institute report: “Even with only two years of tracking, 58 percent of California parolees are back in prison, while most states with three to five years of tracking have 10 to 20 percent of parolees back in prison. Nobody’s a disaster like California.”

And why is this so? Largely, because we have the most troubling prison guards’ organization in the nation, throwbacks who use methods of prisoner control and punishment so backward that a Del Norte Superior Court judge found them unconstitutional.

In December, Judge Robert Weir said California guards must stop locking down segregated cell blocks of prisoners based on skin color after Latinos or blacks get into a fight in the prison yard or in the laundry room.

As lawyers for Pelican Bay State prisoners noted, “the guards were using the mass lockdowns, which last weeks or months, to repress” well-behaved and even model prisoners, even in far-off sectors of the prison, based on race. The guards were out to make prisoners stir-crazy—a special little reminder that it’s still another era inside California’s prisons.

So, you don’t give a flying fig about how we treat prisoners? Fine. But don’t believe for a moment that we law-abiding citizens have escaped the suffering caused by our fossilized California prison guards.

The 122,000 parolees released onto streets in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and other communities every year commit crimes upon the rest of us at a rate higher than ex-cons almost anywhere else.

You can thank the prison guards’ union because, unlike weaker prison guards’ unions in most states, our all-powerful union has fought most prison reforms that could have given these felons and drug addicts the training and tools to help them get a fresh start on the outside.

Geoff Segal, a policy director at the Reason Public Policy Institute, who consults with officials in five states on budget and prison issues, said, “They are the strongest guard union in the country, by far, and one that has no shame in that what they do is solely for themselves regardless of cost to society or others. The Bureau of State Audits says Corrections is the worst department in California—the worst-run. With the sweetest contracts, their job requirements are the softest, and their abuse of rules and overtime is the grossest.”

But in Sacramento, one is not permitted to openly criticize the guards. Oh, heavens no.

The most tragic example of doing so is former state Senator Richard Polanco. The guards are credited—if that upbeat word can be used—with bringing down Polanco, who, though controversial, was the most heroic critic against them. Polanco vociferously fought the guards’ efforts to keep their incompetent clutches on every prison program, and he fought Davis’ huge raises and workplace concessions.

Polanco understood that private correctional programs could bring to California far more competent and cheaper groups to provide prisoners with skills for the real world—the worst possible news for Machiavellian prison guards’ union leaders whose greatest fear is a reduction in the California prison population.

Polanco once told me the guards “are bad business, in every sense of that word, and people don’t realize the danger we have created by letting them run Sacramento.”

These days, Polanco cannot be reached for comment. He was driven from politics after the media received anonymous mailings in 2001 of a birth certificate proving Polanco had a “love child” with a former staffer. The mailing went out just as Polanco launched his campaign for Los Angeles City Council, but it was never linked to any source. At the same time, reports surfaced that Polanco settled a sexual-harassment lawsuit with another staffer from an alleged 1996 incident. The two pieces of news caused Polanco to abandon the council race.

Neither piece of news was traced to the guards’ union. However, in May 2002, the Los Angeles Times openly called Polanco “the target of a campaign by the [prison guards’] union last year to deny him a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.”

Republicans also quake in fear of the guards. In an “object lesson,” the guards poured $260,000 into a race for conservative high-desert candidate Sharon Runner to oust equally conservative longtime pol Phil Wyman, who supported private-prison programs.

Said my nervous lobbyist acquaintance, “The message to Republicans from the guards was: ‘We will spend whatever amount of money is necessary against those who disagree with us, and we are in control.’ ”

Both sides quietly submit to the prison guards. Republican Assembly minority leader Dave Cox and Republican Senate minority leader Jim Brulte went to Hawaii with the prison guards’ union in December, right after the governor announced the budget disaster’s scope, as did Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson.

Purportedly there to attend the union’s conference on political issues and leadership, the widely criticized Hawaiian junket was really a psychological display of pure fear.

“Fear is my analysis,” said Segal, of the Reason Public Policy Institute. “They were literally afraid not to show up in Hawaii.”

Of the leadership, only Senate President John Burton had the guts to turn down the prison guards’ invite to Hawaii, but Burton buckled to the union some days ago, when he reappointed the union’s retired leader Don Novey to a cushy $100,000-plus state post.

And look at how Davis displays his fear. He proposes cutting the funding for rubber sheets for the elderly who pee in their beds, and ending state funding for diabetic syringes for the low-income, yet he tried to sneak in $50 million in extra money for the overspending prisons, by quietly including it in the “budget cuts” he proposed in January.

This, even though our prison population has tapered off because of the drop in crime and because of voter-approved drug-treatment diversion programs.

For shame, Governor Davis.

Last year, amid the budget crisis, Davis and the Legislature ignored Polanco and gave the guards an outrageous, utterly unearned 34-percent, five-year raise with extra vacation time, shorter hours and retirement at 50 with nearly full pay. Some weeks later, the guards handed Davis the biggest check he has ever gotten from a campaign contributor, for $251,000.

Sickening, isn’t it?

It is crucial to keep in mind this fact: Only California pays guards $55,000, plus huge overtime to 5,000 of them who make more than their $60,000- to $70,000-a-year bosses. Last year, an audit found 80 prison guards had managed to stick taxpayers for more than $100,000.

“It would make you sick to see the $50,000 cars pealing out of San Quentin Prison after the shift change,” said my lobbyist source.

The vast majority of states pay lower salaries than California does, in keeping with the low skill levels of prison guards everywhere. Yet, guards elsewhere have been forced to help prepare prisoners for the outside world. That’s not the case in California, where a despicable movement is under way to reclassify non-troublesome, low- and medium-security prisoners as problem prisoners who need high-security cells. The reclassification is to justify more overtime and the opening of the redundant, costly Delano II maximum-security prison.

As we watch Davis and the Legislature cower before the prison guards amid this round of budget slashes, I predict that in a few years, we are likely to have a huge, system-wide guard scandal on our hands.

That’s what happens when one group is allowed to pervert the roots of the democratic process, while nobody is watching.