Policy Today magazine cover
July 5, 2006

California prison guards "walk the toughest beat in the state." They also wield enormous political influence. Some argue that their political strength distorts the criminal justice system, but a closer look reveals deeper systemic problems.

If you paid any attention to California's special election last year, the political influence wielded by public employee unions doesn't surprise you. But few could guess one of the groups that carry the heaviest political clout in the state: California's prison guards. The members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) are an unlikely political powerhouse that spent millions of dollars throughout the 1990s to help elect governors such as Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, and to pass sentence-lengthening legislation such as California's controversial three-strikes law.

Many critics, including Governor Schwarzenegger, believe the prison guards' union—the second largest political action committee in the state—wields too much political influence. But as prison populations expand and more prisons rise from our deserts and rural cities, the union is only going to get stronger. And with the addition of more dues-paying members, its influence in Sacramento will undoubtedly grow. Is their influence distorting the criminal justice system, as critics suggest? Or, is the CCPOA just doing what unions do, protecting its members from greater problems within the system itself?

A more perfect union

CCPOA has primarily been successful at negotiating large increases in benefits and pay for its members, and as a result the union often receives much of the blame for the high cost of California's correctional system. Indeed, California spent a total of $8 billion on the budget for the CDCR in 2005-2006, and about 70% of that budget went to staffing costs.

This argument frustrates Chuck Alexander, Executive Vice President of CCPOA. "The criticism that we drive the high cost of prisons has always bothered me," he says. "It's unfair, it's disingenuous and it's ill-informed. Obviously, we are a workforce and the workforce in any business drives expenses."

Alexander's response to the criticism points to a common simplification of the argument: California has many inmates—more than any other state except for Texas—and they are housed in a large number of prisons, which must be staffed full-time. But staff-to-inmate ratios are "unusually low in California," according to Joan Petersilia, whose widely acclaimed report, "Understanding Corrections," was published at the end of May. As evidence, Petersilia points out that "California's inmate-to-correctional officer ratio is 6.46 to one, compared to a national average of 4.47." Moreover, according to Petersilia, there is currently a 20% staff vacancy rate among prison guards.

Who wants this job?

The high vacancy rate for the job isn't much of a surprise. "It's just not a real desirable job for a lot of people," says Alexander. Even though many prison guards take home a handsome salary, there are long hours and dangerous conditions to contend with. Moreover, recent moves to cut the prison system's ballooning cost may actually be exacerbating the situation. In one such move, the CDCR under Secretary of Corrections Roderick Hickman shut down the prison guard's academy. "It will take us a couple of years to catch up with the problems the year-long academy shutdown caused," Alexander believes, adding, "It saved a couple million bucks because it's a pretty good-sized operation, but now overtime is the issue."

With the prisons operating well above capacity, officials have two choices to fill the gaps: recruit more guards and fill the holes with mandatory overtime in the short-term. "Keep in mind that we have an operation that must be staffed," Alexander argues. "We cannot run positions by saying 'Well, Johnny called in sick today so we just won't have anybody there.' So, with the vacancies that we have, someone has to take the overtime." And that overtime is expensive, to the tune of $277 million last year. Because of overtime pay, one of every 10 California prison guards made over $100,000 last year, even though the average base pay is just $57,000.

What's to blame?

Is all that overtime making the system so expensive? Critics who blame the CCPOA for the prison system's price tag say so. Others argue that the CCPOA has merely been successful at doing what unions are supposed to do: negotiating better pay and working conditions for their members. CCPOA officials claim that they compete with other law enforcement agencies for employees and that their benefits packages need to be competitive in order to attract employees.

Beyond that, the union's motto states that their members "Walk the Toughest Beat in the State," and the union verifies this claim by pointing to the rate of gang membership in California prisons, and the potential for violence that is pervasive within them. "On average, we have more than nine officers assaulted daily," says Alexander. "Last January, we had an officer stabbed to death. It is a dangerous place, particularly when we're overcrowded, when we have no programs as we have none now, when we're short-staffed, as we are now."

The recent resignation of Roderick Hickman from his post as Secretary of Corrections highlights some of these problems. Hickman's time as head of the Department of Corrections involved a large degree of conflict with the union, and CCPOA now blames Hickman for many of the current failures of the system. Under Hickman's tenure, the CDCR tried to emphasize rehabilitation, even adding the word to department's name. But the name change had little effect, and while the CDCR's budget expanded, few rehabilitation programs were put in place.

More broadly, the cost of employing prison guards has been compared by some analysts to the costs of current correctional programs that are viewed as outright failures. If California wants to cut costs it might look, for instance, at juvenile justice, a program that State Senator Gloria Romero says is "the shame of the nation." "We've been sued over and over and over," she argues. "We spend $400 million on it annually and there's something like a 90% recidivism rate. The average ward costs $169,000 to lock up in the juvenile justice system. Everybody agrees it's a fiasco."

On top of that, the parole system costs the state around $1 billion a year, argues Romero, but many analysts think that California's current system of parole is failing miserably, sending inmates into the streets and then back to prison for a short amount of time on a "catch-and-release" basis. "There are very few vocational education programs, very few education programs, very few rehabilitation programs, and in the adult system we are bursting at the seams from a population crisis," Romero argues. In short, she says, "There is no boogeyman here. The union is powerful but they don't run corrections."

Other considerations

Some critics even argue that high pay rates for prison guards may benefit the state. Petersilia argues in her report that "in 2004, only 1,000 of California's 36,000 sworn peace officers left the CDCR, an annual turnover rate of 3.6%. This is very low for public service generally and quite unusual for correctional settings, where burnout is typically a significant issue."

Alexander confirms Petersilia's analysis in a comparison to Texas, which has some of the lowest-paid prison guards in the country. "One of the things that struck me about Texas," he says, "is that they have a fairly high turnover rate, as do a number of other states because of pay, where guards don't tend to stick with the job as a career choice. In California, we have a competitive wage, and prison guards tend to stay with it as a career."

Looking forward

Does all of this contribute to public safety? The union seems to think so and recent studies could confirm the point. While California has the lowest staff-to-inmate ratios, it also has a very low escape rate, one of the lowest in the country.

Ultimately, any attempts at prison reform must analyze more than the perceived political influence of the primary actors. The structure of many programs themselves—parole, juvenile justice, the lack of vocational and educational programs in prison—is ultimately at the heart of any policy discussion, including the union's strength. As long as California has one of the largest inmate populations in the country, it will employ many prison guards. Consequently, the CCPOA will continue to have millions of dollars to pump into election campaigns and ballot measure battles. In short, the more prisons California builds, the stronger the prison guards' union will become, and the more distant the issue of reform will become.

About Erik Aker

Erik Aker is a professor of humanities and freelance journalist from San Diego, California.