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CA Prison Guards - A Potent Political Interest Group

By Dan Pens

There is a well fed political interest group feasting at the California public trough, and most taxpayers are unaware of the huge growth in this creatures appetite and political clout. It has grown from a political runt to one of the biggest hogs in the barnyard in an incredibly short span of time. This political interest group has swelled with such swiftness and cunning that most California taxpayers would not even recognize its name, much less realize how much of an impact it is having on their pocketbooks and on the states economy. Im talking about the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA).

In 1980 there were 22,500 prisoners in California. The average salary for California prison guards was $14,400 a year. The state budget for corrections was $300 million per year. In the past, California schools and universities were the envy of the world. The states economy was strong, bolstered by huge numbers of defense jobs. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) was a politically minuscule organization vying for attention among the giants of fat defense contractors.

In 1994 there are over 115,000 prisoners in California. The average salary for California prison guards is $44,000 per year ($53,000 with benefits)--$10,000 more than the average teachers salary. Prison guards require only a high school education and a six week training course. Most teaching jobs require a masters degree or at least an undergraduate degree in education. In 1993 California spent a greater portion of its state budget on corrections than it did for education for the first time (compared to as recently as fiscal year 1983/84 when California spent 3.9% of its budget on corrections, and 10% on higher education). The state corrections budget in 1994 was $3 billion. The demise of the Cold War meant the decline of defense jobs. According to the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament, a non-profit Washington DC group, there has been a decline of over 750,000 defense related jobs in the last five years alone --most of them in California. But as the military-industrial complex is waning in California, the Prison-Industrial Complex is mushrooming. Since 1984 California has added a whopping 25,900 prison employees, substantially more than has been added to all other state departments combined (16,000). By one estimate hiring for prisons has accounted for 45 percent of the growth in all California jobs since 1984.

The CCPOAs rise to political power can be traced to 1980 when Don Novey rose to the presidency of the CCPOA. Novey is the son of a prison guard. He graduated from American River College and served in Army intelligence in the late 60s. Then, before becoming the head of the union, he worked as a prison guard in Folsom.

Prior to Noveys ascendancy, the union had been a weak pitiful thing with a membership divided between the California State Employees Association and the California Correctional Officers Association. In all it had only about 5,600 members. But when Novey won control of its leadership, the union combined Youth Authority supervisors and parole officers with prison guards, and with the acceleration of prison building (California has built 19 new prisons since 1980), the CCPOA membership has swelled to 23,000 members.

Recognizing not only the political importance of lobbying but the power of public relations, Novey began spending about half a million dollars on PR and on honing a public image for himself: that of the self-depreciating, fedora-wearing, blue collar labor leader. But it is in the arena of political lobbying rather than PR that Novey has shown true genius.

The CCPOA collects nearly $8 million a year in dues, and it expends, according to the San Francisco Examiner, twice as much in political contributions as the California Teachers Association, although it is only one-tenth the size. The union is now second in the state only to the California Medical Association in political contributions. Don Novey has shaped the CCPOA into a potent political force. Candidates for governor have genuflected at Noveys feet in hopes of getting the endorsement and deep pocket largess of his association, and have submitted to grilling by the union leadership to see if they were worthy. Jack Meola, the CCPOAs executive vice president, says their questioning of candidates is intense. "Our primary goal is to protect the public," he says in his smooth PR banter to the press, "to keep thugs off the street and in jail where they belong."  To fail the test, Novey maintains, could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Diane Feinstein found that out in 1990 when Noveys union gave almost $1 million to enthrone law enforcements friend, Pete Wilson, in the State House.

And, of course, the union not only wields the political stick, it also dispenses the carrot, and not just to Pete Wilson. Novey and his union contributed $76,000 to the 1992 re-election campaign of David Elder, the chair of the state Assemblys Committee on Public Employment and Security -- the very same committee that rules directly on the pay and benefits of prison guards.  And they have received value for their political contribution dollars. Prison guards recently got raises six months ahead of other state government employees. Their average salary of $44,000 per year is 58 percent above the national average for prison guards. And they now boast one of the best pension plans of any state employee. In addition to excellent medical coverage, they receive 75 percent of their salary at the time of retirement, which can be 55 after 30 yearss service, and they get a 2 percent yearly increase after two years of retirement. To ward off the critics, Noveys PR machine drums up the theme that prison guards patrol "the toughest beat in the state." But that simply is not the case. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, over the past three decades, 13 prison guards have been killed throughout the state compared with 63 officers in the LAPD--an organization with half the members of the CCPOAs 14,000 members who serve as guards. (the rest of the 23,000 CCPOA members work in parole or as Youth Authority supervisors.)

The slick PR is aimed mainly at the public. State politicians dont need the propaganda to toe the CCPOA line. They know that one false step could result in Novey pulling a "Vasconcellos" on them. That is, the CCPOA richly endowing the campaign coffers of their opponent, as Noveys union did to John Vasconcellos, the chair of the state Assemblys Ways and Means Committee and an opponent of the prison building boom. Although it was generally conceded that Vasconcellos seat was among the more secure in the Assembly, the CCPOA still laid more than $75,000 in the lap of Vasconcellos 1992 opponent just to let him know that it did not appreciate him signing the ballot argument against the prison-bond initiative in 1990, or questioning the fat contracts being awarded to prison guards at a time when the state was in the direst fiscal straights since the Great Depression. Vasconcellos was re-elected in 1992 with a substantial majority. But a clear, sharp message had been sent to the self-described "progressive" who has labored long and hard for a more thoughtful approach to crime and incarceration, and to any other state politicians echo might entertain the thought of publicly opposing prison-building legislation or criticize the guards union.

The crowning glory of the CCPOAs political action campaign is without a doubt the passage of Proposition 184, the "Three Strikes" Initiative. The CCPOA contributed $101,000 to get Prop 184 on the ballot. The CCPOA donation was clearly a key factor in getting the initiative on the ballot and on getting it passed. Even though the legislature had already been cowed into passing virtually identical legislation, the fact that it was passed by voter initiative ensures that the legislature cannot easily modify this "Prison Guard Full Employment Act." CCPOA member, Lt. Kevin Peters, sums up the memberships position on "Three Strikes" when he says, "You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are opportunities for the people who are [already] correction  staff, and opportunities for the general public to become correctional officers. Weve gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and with 'Three Strikes and the overcrowding were going to experience with that [CA already has the most overcrowded prison system in the US, operating at over 180% of rated capacity], were going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees."

But Lt. Peters, like the CCPOA as a whole, can see no farther than the end of the snout he has buried in the public trough. Though the public has been hoodwinked by crime fear hysteria fueled by the media and capitalized on by both political parties to gain the attention and affection of voters, critics are beginning to voice their doubt and concern over the direction these misguided policies are taking California. The once Golden State, whose public education system was the envy of the world, now ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in spending from kindergarten through high school. There are almost no meaningful drug rehabilitation programs in California, and almost no housing for the homeless; hospital emergency rooms are closing all over the state, libraries in L. A. County are closed on weekends, and many are open only two days a week; kids in some of the poorest neighborhoods have no place to go after school, and California now spends more on prisons than it does on colleges and universities. It is in a climate such as this that jack-booted reactionaries are able to sound the Nazi-like alarm that immigrants are the cause of the states budget woes and the reason there are not enough jobs, schooling, medical and social services to go around.

Many corporations have fled California because of increased state taxes, and taken their jobs with them. Although the decrease in industrial jobs has been partly offset by increases in corrections jobs, it doesnt take a genius to see that this trend doesnt make for a viable economic strategy. As more and more working wage jobs are eliminated, the unemployed and the poor will have fewer and fewer economic opportunities. The state budget for health, education and social services will continue to be bled by the prison expansion programs. According to Jim Gomez, Californias director of Corrections, it will cost $40 billion to build the 21 new prisons required to house the surge in prisoners that "Three Strikes" (and similar "get tough" laws) will generate, and an additional $5.5 billion a year to run them. A RAND Corporation study predicts the corrections budget will double, growing from 9 percent of all state expenditures to 18 percent. It also predicts that prosecution costs will soar. "To support implementation of the law, total spending for higher education and other government services would have to fall by more than 40 percent over the next eight years," the RAND report concludes. The CCPOA is spearheading a political and economic strategy that will lead California into an abyss.

But perhaps this is the only direction that may lead to eventual social and economic justice. The prospects for evolutionaryshifts to the left grow dimmer and dimmer. Perhaps it is only after the state drives itself into an abyss that a radical revolutionary shift can take place. That remains to be seen.

LA Weekly, Orange County Herald, Sacramento Bee, et al.

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