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Bloated Prison Budget Fuels California's Degenerative Incarceration Spiral

by John E. Dannenberg

California's $5.3 billion prison spending plan was shaved only a miniscule $35 million in the August 2, 2003 $100 billion annual state budget - a "budget" that is admittedly $38.2 billion out of balance over the next two years - while state vehicle registration fees were tripled, universities lost $480 million, K-12 grade school funding was slashed, health clinics for the aged and infirm were shuttered, state sales tax re-apportionment to counties was hijacked, court budgets were cut 10%, 800 Highway Patrol positions were eliminated, public works projects were delayed or canceled and University of California tuition fees were increased 25%. Although the budget was a month overdue, the California prison guards' 7% wage increase took effect immediately. The first increment of a five year programmed 37% increase, it had been quietly separately signed into law by Governor Davis as "emergency legislation" on January 15, 2002 (Chapter 1, Stats. 2002) without regard for the future welfare of the rest of the state.

The 37% package, representing an estimated $518 million annual added budget burden, is the result of the influence bought with multi-million dollar political campaign donations by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) - the prison guards' union. Of the $77.8 million spent by Governor Davis in his November, 2002 reelection campaign [he has accepted $127 million in contributions since 1983], $3.4 million came from the CCPOA - who gave another $1.5 million to Legislative candidates last year. The CCPOA, with 29,000 members paying $59 in monthly dues, generates $20 million in annual revenue, but has no typical union costs for pensions, medical or dental plans [paid by the state] or a strike fund [barred by law]. Their most visible expenses are buying political influence [$9.6 million since 1998 alone], paying for attorneys to defend guards in job-related criminal and civil prosecutions [$4 million to defend Corcoran guards in fatal-prisoner-shooting litigation, after their secret $4 million supplemental appropriations bill to get the state to pay for it was uncovered and stopped by irate state senators] and supporting their extensive Sacramento headquarters facility.

Other notable projects include spending $260,000 in 2002 to defeat Republican state Assemblyman Phil Wyman - a vocal supporter of private prisons (which do not employ CCPOA guards); opposing community colleges giving higher education classes at prisons [presumably under the theory that an educated prisoner won't become a repeat customer]; and "persuading" then Governor Davis to outright close a CDC internal affairs investigations office in Rancho Cucamonga - allegedly to save its $956,000 annual costs - thereby ending a year-long investigation of up to 20 guards allegedly beating five shackled prisoners at the California Institution for Men (CIM) prison in Chino on May 9, 2002. Two investigators, Robert Moldonado and Richard Feastor, filed a complaint with the State Board of Control charging that the CCPOA had intervened to hamper their probe of the beating. On June 5, 2003, CCPOA President Lance Corcoran criticized the Rancho Cucamonga office's work: "They were an awful unit. They blew cases. Anything that was in the media, they went after. Anything that was real, they were inept." After a five hour July 10, 2003 Capitol hearing on the stalled probe, Senator Gloria Romero said "The integrity of our corrections system is seriously in question. There's a need for a real shakeup." An exasperated State Senator Jackie Speier lamented "It's a circus. And the tent has to come down."

Parole Policies Keep Prisons Full

Perhaps the greatest influence by the CCPOA over prison budget expenditures - and the least well understood - is their direct control over parole agents (who are mostly union members) so as to ensure sufficient revocations of parole to bring 90,000 parolees back to prison every year for "technical violations." At any one time, approximately 40% of California's 160,000 prison population - or 64,000 prisoners - consist of such violators. At an annual incarceration cost of $27,000 per prisoner, this amounts to a $1.7 billion burden on the California taxpayers each year based not upon the judgment of a court, nor the verdict of a jury, but solely upon the "discretion" of a Parole Agent I. Phone orders come down to the field offices directing parole agents to "sweep" up a given quota of parolees and return them to prison. Until the recent Valdivia v. Davis decision (206 F.Supp.2d 1068 (E.D. Calif. 2002)) [see PLN, January 2003, p.16], such parolees were denied their constitutional right to even a probable cause hearing; they were just warehoused in California Department of Corrections (CDC) Reception Centers for months before they received any due process of law. Looked at from another perspective, since approximately one guard is employed for every 5 CDC prisoners, this parolee recycling program keeps approximately 11,600 of the 29,000 union members gainfully employed.

Another "sacred cow" portion of the annual prison budget burden is the $300 million cost of keeping 6,000 aging long-overdue-for-parole lifers illegally incarcerated. [See PLN, April 2000, p.1 "California's No Parole Policy."] Of California's current 25,000 lifer population, approximately 1,400 become initially eligible for parole each year. California Penal Code §3041 (a) commands that these prisoners "normally" have their parole date fixed at this initial hearing. But due to purely political pressures, in fact, none has their term fixed at the initial hearing. And regardless of how cleanly these lifers "program," how many trades they learn, how much public support they are offered in the form of jobs, housing and money, they are arbitrarily denied their statutory entitlement to a parole date for up to decades. In over 10,000 lifer parole hearings in the past four years, only about 160 resulted in terms being fixed; in all but five of those cases the parole was reversed by ex-Governor Davis, who by law may review all lifer parole decisions. (Not surprisingly, he reviews none of the 99.9% of the cases where parole is denied by the Board.)

These aging lifers' endless incarceration employs at least another 1,100 guards. Guards value the lifers' continued presence, because these hopeful souls make the guards' lives immeasurably easier by maintaining the peace internally. At the same time, the CCPOA does its part to prevent their ever getting paroled, by sponsoring victims' rights groups whose unending agenda is to oppose all lifer paroles. For years, such groups have enjoyed free office space, postage and telephones at the modern CCPOA Sacramento headquarters facility. Today, CCPOA maintains at their office for Crime Victims United a macabre wall displaying the names of all current condemned California prisoners whose direct appeals of their convictions have been affirmed by the California Supreme Court.

The CCPOA's lifer parole-suppression activity comes at a great cost to the California taxpayer. Today, the earthquake-vulnerable eastern span of the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge is being replaced by a new $2.1 billion structure. The $300 million spent annually on over-incarcerating 6,000 aging lifers would pay outright for this crucial public infrastructure in seven years. Instead, the public will pay a $3 bridge toll for 40 years to retire the bridge's bond financing, while the lifers remain behind bars, and the budget deficit of $38.2 billion continues to fester.

Misbehaving Guards Kept on Payroll

But the prison system's drain on California's budget has other notable sources. As many as 109 guards and other CDC workers have been placed on paid administrative leave - spanning months to years - while authorities investigate alleged misdeeds ranging from having sex with prisoners, to selling drugs to prisoners, to putting child porn on state computers, to spousal abuse and manslaughter. (CDC's number of personnel on such paid administrative leave exceeds that of all other state agencies combined.) The current record appears to belong to a guard who has been collecting his full $55,000 pay, plus all benefits (including paid vacation, sick leave, pension and raises) since October 30, 2000. Guard Shayne Ziska has been under investigation by the FBI for association with members of a prison gang - the Nazi Low Riders - an allegation he denies. But because he has not been formally charged, he sits at home at taxpayer expense, while other guards must be hired to replace him. CDC spokesman Russ Heimerich has characterized Ziska's stalemate as a due process violation. Ziska was running for president of the Chino chapter of the CCPOA when he was placed on leave.

Another insidious element of the prison budget burden is eye-popping overtime pay. A 2002 audit revealed that CDC paid $110 million in overtime pay in the first six months of the fiscal year - $36 million more than was budgeted for the entire year. With retirements exceeding new hires at the current pace, this overtime burden is projected to continue until 2009.

Under the new contract, a guard may work eight-hour shifts Monday through Thursday, call in sick on Friday, then fill in for someone on Saturday and collect a day's overtime pay. In the first year of this new contract feature, overtime shot up 27% to 5.1 million hours, at an overall cost of $200 million.

Joe Bradley, a 31-year veteran prison guard at CIM who earned more than any member of the California Legislature, is one of 110 prison workers who earned more than $100,000 (not including benefits) in 2002. He basically doubled his salary by working 1,000 hours of overtime. Two guards' pay topped that of the Director of Corrections. The record went to Guard T.L. Laudermill who worked 2,200 hours overtime at CIM in one year to support his seriously ill wife. He collected $145,000 - more than the salary of a superior court judge or California's attorney general.

Counting guards, sergeants and lieutenants, CDC paid $200 million in overtime in 2002. But other staff got in on the gravy train, too. 176 state employees - mostly staff psychiatrists and doctors at state hospitals and prisons - earned more money than the Governor's $165,000 salary. The second highest paid person was Dr. Tam Bui, the surgeon and doctor at San Quentin State Prison. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he made $354,754 in a 12 month period, including $224,566 in bonus pay for working round-the-clock on some days.

Recently, the Legislature criticized a policy where some 300 CDC retirees "double-dipped" by hiring back on for six month periods as "retired annuitants." According to CDC's Chief Financial Officer Wendy Still, this is "very cost effective" compared to hiring new employees instead. Retirees called back to duty receive their full pensions, including 90% of their closing pay and health-care coverage, plus their salary from their prior job for the six months they are back at work. Some are paid to commute to their jobs. But in at least 30 known instances, the retirees also collected six months of unemployment benefits after their six month reemployment ended. Upon the Legislature's pained inquiry, CDC agreed not to rehire any such "triple-dippers."

CCPOA Attacks Education Programs

In taking the CCPOA from 2,000 members 20 years ago to the current 29,000 members, former union President Don Novey - a former guard who "retired" at age 55 in 2002 to take a $114,000 per-year appointment to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board - gave California's politicians a lesson in special-interest influence. While he spearheaded a January 15, 2002 contract that gives guards a 37% raise, and 90% retirement pay after 30 years at age 50, his union championed job-protecting anti-prisoner-education activities.

There used to be three programs at California's 33 state prisons that offered prisoners accredited classes to earn college degrees. Today there are only two. Protests by the union prompted elimination of one at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, according to spokesman Lt. Warren Montgomery, ending the video classes for 50 prisoners. Kelley Brashears, president of the local CCPOA chapter, said such state funded education should go "to people in the community who pay taxes and may benefit from these services." Ironwood State Prison, another prison in Blythe, has 280 enrolled students (with a waiting list of 800). Ironwood's Warden James E. Hall countered "If inmates can better themselves in prison, they're more likely to find a job when they get out and less likely to go back to their predatory ways. That's good for everybody."

Well, almost everybody. If prisoners don't reoffend, guards could lose jobs. That thought, apparently, was so distressing as to drive Brashears' CCPOA chapter to circulate an April 23, 2003 memo expressing its outrage at the supportive Palo Verde Community College, and urged union guards to boycott all prison-backed fund-raisers, picnics and other functions until the college program was canceled. Perhaps the ugliest indignity was the memo's shameful instruction to Blythe guards to boycott all blood drives, too. Thus, sworn peace officers put job protectionism above the good citizenship role to unselfishly donate the gift of life - blood; presumably, they would let their neighbors - perhaps even their own loved ones - die in a medical emergency before they would let a prisoner try to improve himself through study.

But even if one buys the Blythe union's funds-utilization argument as community-spirited (Warden Hall did not - Ironwood's college program survived the union's assault for now), that would not apply to San Quentin State Prison's donated college program. San Quentin is the beneficiary of the generosity of Patten College, an accredited private school that offers an extensive evening college program leading to Associate of Arts degrees, at absolutely no cost to the prison. Top quality professors teach eager San Quentin prisoners Philosophy, Introduction to Religion, Ethics, Sociology, U.S. History, Political Science, Ancient World History, Algebra, Pre-calculus, Geometry, English 101 and 102, Communications, Spanish 101, 102, and 103, South African Literature, Indonesian Literature, Chicano Literature, Psychology, Astronomy and much more. Warden Jeanne Woodford is proud of this program - personally attending each graduation ceremony with the prisoners, their family members and faculty. Graduates wear caps and gowns as they receive their diplomas, while local TV stations tape and air the proceedings.

The question has been raised that if guards could not get a free education, why should convicted felons get one? Patten College, a church sponsored institution, may respond by also offering classes to guards. CDC guards need only a GED to get their job; some might well benefit from academic growth for future job placement - just like prisoners. At the very least, graduating guards could thereby hedge their bet against educated prisoners not returning to prison.

In recognition of the value in educating prisoners, California's Prison Literacy Act requires prisoners to be trained to read at least at the ninth grade level. Of incoming prisoners, one half test below ninth grade while one third fall below fourth grade. Prisoners must attend remedial classes rather than work if their test scores are below ninth grade. GED programs are offered. ESL (English as a Second Language) classes are offered for the many Spanish-only speaking prisoners. Vocational programs are offered at most prisons, and the parole board often requires a certificate in a trade. Standardization of education programs among California's prisons, the subject of current Assembly Bill 1219, is designed to mirror similar acts in 20 other states, where recidivism plummeted as a measured result. (The CCPOA's position on AB 1219 is not known at this time.)

Save a Penny, Spend Millions

So where do CDC budget savings come from to offset the guards' July 1, 2003 7% raise in a year when the state is facing a massive deficit? To attempt to minimize a $70 million overrun from last fiscal year, prisons at Lancaster, Salinas Valley and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran responded in June, 2003 by slamming the pens 24-7. All exercise yard time was canceled; work and education programs were curtailed; prisoners were fed in their cells. After complaints to CDC headquarters by prisoner families and the ACLU, the prisons backed down within a week and returned to normal programs.

Other cuts include eliminating the position of Community Resource Manager at each prison and the Work Incentive Plan Coordinator. These functional responsibilities have been redirected to other managers.

But a major casualty was the elimination of vocational training programs at many of the state's 33 prisons where extended lockdowns are routine. Since classes there are often canceled, these positions were most vulnerable to the budget axe. The most recent information is that CDC's $35 million budget "cut" in the 2003 budget all comes from prisoner education programs, where the state has handed out layoff notices to 318 positions.

Notwithstanding the CCPOA's record of buying political support for its protectionist legislation, the state simply cannot afford "business as usual." Totally outside concerns regarding prisons, California's electorate was galvanized against former Governor Gray Davis, seen as an indecisive executive whose timidity, on the one hand, and special interest loyalty, on the other hand, directly led California to its current economic conundrum. An unprecedented gubernatorial recall election was set for October 7, 2003, wherein no fewer than 134 candidates vied to replace Davis. From actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who claims that he can't be bought, and asserts a "great disconnect between the people and the government," to columnist Arianna Huffington, who proclaimed that prison guards should not be paid more than teachers, to Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, who opposes the death penalty and proposes higher taxes on the rich to erase the mammoth deficit, it is too early to predict how prison budgets will ultimately fare. Davis was ousted and replaced by Schwarzenegger.

Even with the recent $100 billion "budget," inclusive of $10.7 billion of bonded indebtedness saddling future generations with tax burdens [and ignoring California's constitutional $300,000 maximum debt limit], there is still an $8 billion "hole" that will leave the state bankrupt before the fiscal year ends on June 30, 2004, unless the Tooth Fairy delivers a stock-market boom with lucrative capital gains taxes.

The challenge for California voters may well be to stop the degenerative spiral of ever-increasing incarceration spurred-on by salivating guards. A parolee whose recovery is intentionally shattered by a union-fomented "sweep"; a lifer whose endless, purposeless over-incarceration devolves from union-fueled vigilante motivation of "victims rights" groups - rather than nurturing a healing and closure process for those victims and their families; an incredibly costly "three-strikes" law that automatically punishes misdemeanants more harshly than the punishment for murder, kidnapping, child molestation or rape - these are the bottomless whirlpools that suck the lifeblood out of California's economic and moral health.

If California's Legislature wants to stop the hemorrhaging, it would be wise to reinvent the prison system so as to incentify non-recidivism, rather than fostering the present self-serving job-protection model that rewards recidivism. Because the guards' 7% annual wage increase vastly outstrips the 2% economic growth rate, the ultimate end-game is an easily predictable mathematical certainty: a society consisting largely of prisoners and their guards. For American males born in 2001, 1 in 17 are projected to do prison time during their lives; for African American males, the projection is 1 in 3.

While the shortfall of today's California budget may weigh in at a troubling $38.2 billion, the shortsightedness of the current recidivism-modeled degenerative prison system may cost the ultimate price - the demise of our society.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, AlterNet, Fresno Bee, Oakland Tribune

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