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California: Trendsetter... as Always

Item: California's 33 state prisons are operating at 190 percent of capacity. On January 10, 2002, Governor Gray Davis responded to this crisis by proposing to close five prisons with 1,400 beds.

Item: California is facing a $20 billion budget shortfall. It costs $70 per day to house a convict in a state prison, $44 per day in a private prison. Governor Davis opted to close five private prisons.

Item: On January 16, 2002, Davis signed into law a 34 percent pay raise for California prison guards whose base pay will increase to about $65,000 per year. Plus overtime.

Item:     The California prison guards' union spent $2.3 million to help elect Davis 4 years ago. On March 13, 2002, two months after Davis approved the guards' munificent pay raise, the union contributed an additional $251,000 to Davis.

Item:     Davis is seeking November 2002 election to a second 4-year term as governor.

Governor Gray Davis, having repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during California's recent electric power crises, has decided to banish privately operated prisons from the Golden State. Davis' decision delivers on the promise he made to the state prison guards' union that contributed over $2 million to Davis' 1998 election campaign. The union has long and bitterly fought against private prisons where they have no jurisdiction.

Of California's nine private prisons, Davis proposed closing five of them on June 30, 2002. The other four will close when their operating contracts expire in 2007. The governor claims the state can save about $5 million by closing the five minimum-security facilities. Others dispute his claim. (A $5 million cost cut in a $20 billion budget shortfall amounts to only a 0.025 percent saving.)

The Powerful Prison Guards' Union

In a recently released recorded telephone message intended for union members, Jeff Thompson, formerly a lobbyist for the prison guards, said: "As many of our members are aware, the whole concept of privatization has been a thorn in our side." Davis' decision to close the private prisons "does follow through with the promise made by Governor Davis in past years .... So the governor [is] a man of his word in that regard."

Davis' decision was announced as he sought the election-year endorsement of the prison guards' powerful union, the 28,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in political campaign contributions that will likely accompany it.

State legislators were quick to label Davis' prison-closing scheme as a favor to CCPOA. "Quite obviously, it is a political payback from the governor," said Assemblyman Phil Wyman (R-Tehachapi) alluding to the millions of dollars in campaign contributions flowing from CCPOA to Davis since 1998.

In March 2002 primary elections held in his sparsely populated high desert district, Wyman ran against GOP candidate Sharon Runner. Wyman had once opposed a bill to close a private prison. CCPOA dislikes private prisons because private prison guards are outside CCPOA's jurisdiction. The union's president, Don Novey, told Wyman that opposing the bill was political suicide. In the March primary, CCPOA contributed $271,000 to Runner, not because the union members necessarily agreed with her views but to punish incumbent Wyman—who lost the election.

Support from CCPOA is all but essential to any California political candidate who hopes to win an election. The union's endorsement is a top priority, said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "They're one of the most powerful interest groups in California, if not the most powerful group."

For years, the CCPOA has used its political horsepower to ensure passage of several laws which create virtually perpetual full employment for the guards. In 1994, the union led the crusade to enact California's notorious three-strike law that mandates a life sentence for habitual offenders and keeps the state's prisons overfull. One California corrections official predicted that enactment of the three-strike law would eventually necessitate building 20 new prisons.

Recently, when California voters were asked to approve Proposition 36, a compassionate and common-sense measure to divert nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prisons, CCPOA mounted an aggressive, tough-on-crime campaign to defeat the measure. Voters were not duped by CCPOA's scare tactics; the proposition was approved.

The CCPOA, which some Californians disparagingly refer to as the Prison Thugs Union, gives its members almost unchecked power over prisoners. California's district attorneys, elected by county-wide popular vote, rarely prosecute prison guards for killing or beating a prisoner. To do so would invite disfavor from CCPOA. (See PLN, June 2002, p. 7, where the Kings County District Attorney declined to file charges against a California prison guard who failed to stop the fatal beating of one prisoner by another.) One district attorney who had the temerity to prosecute a prison guard was defeated in the next general election by a candidate who, like Sharon Runner, benefited from CCPOA's largesse.

At one point, state lawmakers proposed legislation to transfer all prison guard brutality prosecutions to the state's Attorney General. CCPOA worked successfully to defeat the bill.

The union also blocked legislation that would have required random searches of prison guards for drugs. CCPOA president Novey explained that the legislation was unnecessary because drug trafficking was limited to only five or 10 "ignorant" guards. Internal Affairs' investigators tell a different story—scores of guards are in the drug business, they found.

In a recent court action against the California Department of Corrections (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Justice, the union had sufficient influence to prevent the questioning of any prison guard without at least 24 hours' notice.

After granting the guards an extravagant 34 percent pay boost which will take effect over the next 5 years, the Davis administration found only enough money to grant other state workers a meager 5 percent increase in take-home pay to be spread over the next 2 years. The state legislative analyst's office projected that the pay increase for the guards will cost the state $652 million per year by 2006 when all pay raises take full effect.

There is nothing wrong with paying prison guards well but compare the guards' $65,000 annual salary to the $47,000 average annual salary for the state's credentialed public school teachers who must have a college degree and a year of postgraduate training. Or the paltry $25,000 or so paid to a California preschool teacher.

California prison guards need only a high school diploma and 4 months' training before donning the uniform. By comparison, many California jurisdictions require applicants for peace officer positions to have completed at least some college courses. The cities of Berkeley in northern California and Glendale in the south require aspiring police officers to have at least a 2-year degree. Those applying to the Sacramento Police Department must have some college credits, then successfully complete an exhaustive 4,440 hours of training before becoming sworn officers.

The Private Prison Closings

Private prisons in California were first authorized during the 1980s under the administrations of GOP Governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. The nine private facilities were seen as a way to house minimum-security prisoners at relatively low cost when the state's prison population was rising rapidly.

By most measures, the private prisons were a success. Even former convicts have testified at legislative hearings that, unlike CDC facilities, private prisons have treated them with respect and given them the tools they needed to succeed outside the prison fences.

Measured against state prison standards, the private lockups are small. The five facilities slated for June 2002 closure house a combined total of 1,400 convicts, all of whom have been classified as low risk and are nearing the end of their sentences.

Four of the five facilities are run by corporations which operate private prisons in other states. The Leo Chesney Correctional Center in Live Oak and the Baker Community Correctional Facility near Baker are operated by Cornell Companies of Houston. The Eagle Mountain facility in Riverside County is operated by Management and Training Corporation of Centerville, Utah, while the McFarland Community Correctional Facility near Bakersfield is operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The Mesa Verde facility in Kern County is the only prison operated by Alternative Programs, a home-town operation founded by two men in Bakersfield.

The remaining four private prisons are scheduled for closure in June 2007. They are all corporate operated. Desert View Medium Correctional Facility in Adelanto plus Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility and Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility, both in Kern County, are all operated by Wackenhut. The Victor Valley Medium Community Correctional Facility, also in Adelanto, is the only prison operated by Maranatha Corrections LLC of Bakersfield. Each of these four facilities has a capacity of approximately 550 residents. Central Valley and Desert View were originally intended to house parole violators.

Davis' plan to close the private prisons will be reviewed by state legislators. Even if the lawmakers try to keep the prisons open, Davis will have the last word: He can use his line-item veto to cut off the prisons' funding.

There is little doubt that the five prisons scheduled for June 2002 closing are well run operations. Gregory Harding, the CDC executive who oversees private prisons, found in August 2001 that over a 2-year period there were only two drug-related offenses at Leo Chesney suggesting the Sutter County facility "is largely free of drugs and drug use.

"The inmates are treated with fundamental fairness and the facility is a clean, orderly, well managed facility with excellent leadership," noted Harding.

"No one would deny that Leo Chesney is one of the finest institutions of its kind," added CDC spokesman Russ Heimerich.

Farther south, the 288-bed Community Correctional Facility at Baker lies just off Interstate 15, part of the principal motorway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Prisoners there are trained in basic rescue skills and provide local fire departments with emergency staffing along a desolate, accident-plagued 100-mile stretch of 1-15.

Back in Bakersfield, an audit conducted in 2000 found Mesa Verde to be in compliance with 95 percent of the state’s requirements. Moreover, Alternative Programs charges the state less per prisoner now 'than when it opened the Mesa Verde facility in 1987. In 1998, a CDC official praised Mesa Verde as "an efficient/ well run operation" that is involved with community projects. It donates much of the harvest from its vegetable garden to local homeless shelters, for example.

"It's the union," said Gary White, Mesa Verde's co-founder. "They've stated for years that they want to do away with privatization. [Davis] needs their backing for the upcoming elections. That's my opinion. He has got to have their backing and the money that goes with it. That's politics."

Steve Maviglio, Davis' press secretary, said the union's political clout had nothing to do with the governor's decision to close the private prisons. Davis saw an opportunity to save money, Maviglio said. The governor believes his plan will save the state $5.1 million.

The legislative analyst's office puts the savings at about half that sum... perhaps less.

The nonpartisan analyst pointed out that since California's own prisons are at near double capacity even after a recent decline in prisoner population, closing the private prisons may force the state to build new public prisons at $500 million each. And create more jobs for CCPOA prison guards.

Fearing reprisals by CCPOA, no legislator has dared to challenge the guards' scandalous pay raise nor questioned the wisdom of spending new prison dollars on pay raises rather than on programs such as prison drug treatment and job training—programs that would potentially reduce recidivism.

And diminish the need for more CCPOA prison guards.

Currently, cautious support is building in Sacramento for delaying the shutdown of the private prisons until their cost effectiveness and usefulness are studied.

Contributing to that support are the citizens of Live Oak, home to the privately operated Leo Chesney Correctional Center.

The Opposition Strikes Back

Live Oak, a community of 6,500 determined souls, lies just north of Sacramento. Unlike the state legislators, the people in Live Oak do not fear reprisals by CCPOA. In April, a busload of Live Oak residents traveled to the state capitol in Sacramento to show support for keeping the Leo Chesney Center open.

In poignant and impassioned testimony, former Chesney prisoner Angeline Lizarrago painted a scene of terror and debasement at the main line CDC prisons for women.

Delivering her plea to the State Assembly Budget Committee in a packed hearing room, Lizarrago asked, "You want to close Leo Chesney and send those women back to regular facilities where they will be subject to sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuse?

"I bear the physical scars of my stay with the CDC. The emotional scars will stay with me but the people at Leo Chesney taught me how to deal with those. Those are the issues you need to look at, not the budget," she said.

With pathos and conviction, Lizarrago stood before the lawmakers and beseeched them to save Leo Chesney and the four other private facilities that Governor Davis had marked for closure.

Lizarrago did not stand alone.

"The women in the prison have done a lot to clean up Live Oak," said Marilyn Meyer, a Live Oak business owner. "They've been an asset to the community. I'd hate to see them leave."

Meyer was one of 50 community residents who made the bus trip to Sacramento to show support for keeping Chesney open.

Charlie Eggert, Mayor of Live Oak, said the prisoners operate the community resource programs from which numerous residents benefit. The prisoners also provide the city with labor crews which Eggert values at $138,000 per year. "They're a heck of a good neighbor," he said.

Lizarrago continued her compelling testimony saying, "When I got to Leo Chesney, I had no hope, I was down at the bottom of the barrel." At the main line CDC prison, she was subjected to sexual abuse, drugs, violence, and had to learn to fight to survive, she said. "There is no rehab in a CDC center," she explained. "The only thing you learn  is how to fight, deal drugs, and not trust the system."

At Chesney, all that changed. "The staff                saw potential in me that I never saw in myself," Lizarrago told the lawmakers.

She admitted that she spent the last 15 months at Chesney and used the time to turn her life around. "I took accelerated classes at Yuba College and put them together with other credits and came out with an emergency teaching credential."

Lizarrago concluded her testimony with high praise for the staff at Chesney. "I get emotional about them. I owe them my life, my sanity, and my professional career."

Angie Lizarrago wasn't the only one getting emotional. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the largest newspaper in northern California, was highly critical of Davis. "Along with signing the pay raises, he also plans to close five private prisons which the union regards as a low-wage rival. This brand of flagrant deal-making is public policy at its worst. Davis has rejected leadership for partisan gain."

Jamie Fisfis, a spokesman for Republican Bill Simon, Davis' likely opponent in the November 2002 gubernatorial election, criticized Davis for accepting CCPOA's $251,000 contribution so soon after approving the hefty pay rise. "The governor has a duty to avoid the appearance of impropriety .... In this case, he has failed that duty."

Cornell Companies of Houston added their voice to the growing clamor. Cornell wasn't going to allow their private prisons at Baker and Live Oak to be closed without a fight. At the same time, Alternative Programs of Bakersfield dug in their heels to keep their highly regarded Mesa Verde facility open.

Don Fields put together a 30-minute film on behalf of Cornell. The film, hurriedly produced for about $50,000, attacks the private prison closings as a shameless payback for the $2 million the prison guards' union contributed to Davis for his 1998 election campaign. The film also showcases the accomplishments of Cornell's private prisons at Live Oak and Baker.

Durwood Sigrest, president of the company that operates Mesa Verde, declared that private prisons are the least expensive in the state and the most effective at rehabilitating prisoners.

In May 2002, Sigrest, Fields, and former prisoners took their cause on the road. Fields' film will air on local TV stations in the Bakersfield area where two private prisons are scheduled for June 2002 closure and two more are slated to be closed in June 2007.

"We didn't pick this fight but we're not going to go quietly," Fields said.

Sources: The Bakersfield Californian;  Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy;  Los Angeles Times; Playboy Forum, February 2002; The Sacramento Bee; The San Diego Union-Tribune;  San Francisco Chronicle; U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (NCJ-171681); The Appeal-Democrat. 

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