Unions Root Cause Of Prison Problem

Editor’s Note: We would like to welcome Joseph Perkins as a new CalWatchdog columnist. Perkins is the Business Editor for San Diego Magazine. He previously authored a nationally-syndicated column for the San Diego Union-Tribune.  Before that, he served on the White House Staff of former Vice President Dan Quayle. Before that, he was an Editorial Page Writer for the Wall Street Journal.

CalWatchdog columnist Anthony Pignataro wrote his last column for us this week. He is heading back to Maui to take over as editor of Maui Time Weekly newspaper, but we hope he contributes occasionally on California topics. Perkins’ column will start in Pignataro’s slot starting next week.

MAY 25, 2011


More than one-fourth of convicted felons currently serving time in California prisons will be set free over the next two years without having completed their sentences.

Not because their prison terms have been reduced by the California Parole Board or commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown, but because of a decision on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

By a narrow 5-4 majority, the high court upheld a 2009 ruling by a three-judge panel of the notorious Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordering the state to release inmates at its 33 prisons to reduce overcrowding.

The panel held that inmates were being denied their putative constitutional right to medical care, and that the way to redress the wrong was to thin out the state’s prison population.

The court’s ruling troubles not just because it is, as dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia condemned it, “Perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”  Or, as fellow dissenting Justice Samuel Alito warned, it “will lead to a grim roster of victims.”

But because it yet another deleterious consequence of the outsized influence of California’s public employee unions.

Indeed, the solution to prison overcrowding here in the nation’s most populous state is not to turn some 38,000 to 46,000 inmates out of prison before they have served their sentences, it’s to build more prisons.

And because the deficit-ridden state government lacks the means to build the additional prisons necessary to reduce its present overcrowding, it seems logical that it would turn to the private sector for help.

Private prisons can be built much faster and cheaper than prisons built by the state government. Moreover, private companies like Corrections Corporation of America, Cornell Corrections and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) can secure financing for prison construction projects, sparing fiscally-challenged states like California capital expenditures they simply cannot afford.

Presently, there are more than 260 private prisons throughout the country. The facilities house nearly 100,000 criminal offenders – including more than 10,000 inmates California has transferred to out-of-state private prisons in recent years to ease overcrowding.

Studies show that private prisons are easily as competent in handling inmates as government-operated prisons; and that private prisons put downward pressure on overall prison spending in states, like California, in which public employee compensation is high compared to most other states.

Not surprising, such studies mean little to foes of private prisons, like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which represents the state’s 28,000 prison guards.

The union has been unceasingly critical of private prisons, suggesting that CCA,  Cornell Corrections and GEO Group provide inferior security at their facilities, while yielding little if any real savings to states like California.

It is not hard to imagine that such continuing criticism by the politically-powerful union had something to do with the state’s inexplicable decision in 2009 to shutter Cornell’s facilities in San Bernadino and Bakersfield, and GEO’s facility in McFarland, at a time the state prison population hovered at 40 percent above capacity.

The closures were obviously welcomed by the prison guard’s union whose animus toward private prisons really is not about protecting the public from the state’s criminal element – otherwise they would scream bloody murder about early release of felonious offenders – nor about saving the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year on incarcerating inmates. It’s about eliminating private sector competition.

Indeed, in 2002, CCPOA contributed a whopping $2 million to the re-election campaign of former Gov. Gray Davis. He rewarded the union by shutting down four private prisons (out of five he originally proposed).

Meanwhile, with less competition from private prisons – and their lower wage scales – the state prison guards union negotiated a sweetheart deal with the Davis administration that gave the state’s unionized prison guards a whopping 34 percent pay hike over five years.

The deal cost the state treasury an extra $2 billion over the life of the contract. And, in 2011, California’s unionized prison guards remain among the nation’s highest paid.

With Monday’s Supreme Court decision, with California’s continuing budget crisis, the state government can no longer allow the prison guards union coupled with the California’s capitulation to the state prison guard’s union has.

With the nation’s highest court upholding a lower court order requiring that California reduce its prison overcrowding within two years, with lawmakers in Sacramento struggling mightily to close its remaining $9.6 billion budget gap, it can no longer kowtow to powerful special interests like the prison guards union.

Privately financed and operated  prisons can play an important role in helping California satisfy its court-ordered mandate, while also saving the state billions of dollars it would be forced to lay out if it built and operated new prisons itself.


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  1. Joe Baumann
    Joe Baumann 26 May, 2011, 09:50

    Joseph Joseph Joseph……..

    You forgot to give Governor’s Wilson and Schwarzenegger honorable mention in your article.

    Wilson, the father of the unallocated budget cut, wage freezes and massive hiring freeze, which resulted in a significant reduction in the number of medical staff at each prison. Wonder why the medical receiver ordered across-the-board raises to CDCR’s medical staff? Do some research.

    Then there’s Arnold. The man who allowed the Queen of the Private Prisons, Donna Arduin, draft his first budget. So what’d they do? Project a 30k inmate decrease in population, resulting in the shutdown of all Planning and Construction within CDC. 4 years later, with the passing of AB 900, Arnold had $8 Billion in bond authority to build. So what’d he do? A minimal amount of research will show he did nothing. Nada. Zip. The first Governor to not add a single bed to the prison system since the early 1940’s.

    “The union has been unceasingly critical of private prisons, suggesting that CCA, Cornell Corrections and GEO Group provide inferior security at their facilities, while yielding little if any real savings to states like California.” Just last week, the State of Arizona Department of Corrections issued report which can be added to the volumes of reports that show privatizing prisons saves little to no money, and puts the inmates, employees and general public at greater risk. Just look at the most recent escape in Arizona. At least 2 murders, countless other crimes, the tax payers footing the bill because MTC wanted to save a little money on security.

    Reply this comment
  2. Bravoman
    Bravoman 26 May, 2011, 10:32

    CCPOA is no saint, but to blame the overcrowding issue on them is reaching a bit. Sentencing laws, 3 strikes and others things contribute to the problem, but why don’t we start with the real culprit; those pesky felons who keep committing crimes! Your rant on private prisons is without substance, private prisons house low level offenders, so of course they are easier to control. But even with low level offenders come problems, which if you had done any research you would have found that private prisons, even with their lush environment, have violence and other crimes just like California Prisons do. CCPOA fights to protect their members, just as the Teachers union does, that is their job! I have suggested for years that California could reduce its prison population by simply doing away with Parole for non violent offenders and mandating a 70-80% sentence completion with good behavior! Then in order for them to return to prison, they must commit a new crime, not because they got pulled over for a headlight while on parole. CDCR pays its Officers a good wage, because they earn every penny…..I would love to see how the author would react to a 500 man riot and nothing to protect himself with except a baton and pepper spray….not a great feeling.

    Reply this comment
  3. Joe Baumann
    Joe Baumann 26 May, 2011, 11:12

    Why, just today..in the Colorado Independent…….

    In the wake of news that private prison corporations are spending millions of dollars lobbying for tougher immigration laws comes a study that says privatizing prisons does not save taxpayers any money and may increase costs in some cases.

    With five private prisons currently operating in Colorado, the state seems to be benefiting from the arrangement.

    read the rest of the story here


    Reply this comment
  4. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 26 May, 2011, 15:13

    Critics here assert that private prison corporations lobby for more incarceration, which doubtless is true. But CCPOA makes these private sector upstarts look like pikers.

    The guards’ union buys CA politicians like most of us buy groceries at the supermarket. And most of their union-labeled political allies are cheap acquisitions.

    When one discovers private prison firms donating to a politician, that’s clearly seen as a red flag — as it should be. But tally up the IE campaigns from the CCPOA (and other unions) and realize what they are buying — their prosperity (and increased demand) at our expense.

    We need to disband the public employee labor unions. NOT private sector labor unions.

    Reply this comment
  5. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 26 May, 2011, 15:14

    One advantage of private prisons is that it puts downward pressure on CCPOA demands. The higher their demands, the more they price themselves out of the market. As it is, there is zero incentive for them to be reasonable, let alone reduce the absurd levels of pay currently being recieved.

    Reply this comment
  6. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 26 May, 2011, 15:22

    As of 2008, California prison guards were the highest paid in the nation. http://www.caltax.org/caltaxletter/2008/101708_fraud1.htm

    It costs roughly $50K a year to house a CA prisoner. The national average is about $32K. Private prisons (common in other states but now effectively banned in CA) cost about $20K a prisoner.

    No effort is being made by CA politicians to control these costs. In fact, the governor just signed off on a new sweet labor contract for our powerful state prison guards labor union.

    The median wage for guards nationwide is $42,610.

    CA prison guards make over $70,000 base pay after 3 years on the job, and that’s before counting all the extra categories that increase pay, or overtime.

    And there are the absurd, underfunded CA state pensions. A 30 year guard can retire in his early 50’s with a bigger take-home pension paycheck than his highest net pay while working.

    Gov. Brown may TRY to use this Supreme Court ruling to raise taxes, but these facts about runaway state spending on prisoners will help kill this tax increase.

    Reply this comment
  7. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 26 May, 2011, 15:39

    One other big advantage of private prisons seldom discussed. They can be held accountable. A properly drawn contract can have performance standards, with penalties for sub-par performance.

    And ultimately, the company can be fired. Good luck trying to fire a substandard prison union employee (let alone the department), unless you can pin an illegal act on him or her.

    Reply this comment
  8. RealityChk
    RealityChk 3 January, 2013, 17:05

    re: Bravoman’s comments: Have you actually been in a CA state prison? Is this where you came up with this notion that CDC guards (they are guards …. not police officers) earn every penny? And what do you base this supposition on that they only have batons and pepper spray to protect themselves with against 500 rabid felonious maniacs? I would guess not. I spent a little over 9 months in prison in CA. What I saw in the two prisons I was at were a bunch of easy-going, under-worked, grossly overpaid guards who all drove very nice brand new cars and spent most of their day chatting it up about the nice expensive vacations they took, the new homes they all owned, and the money the spent on projects like restoring an old classic car. It’s a VERY controlled environment …. the risk of serious (or any) injury is minor compared to that of a street cop. Also, they have guns, in fact, many tyes of weapons available to them. It’s a boring job. I wouldn’t want to do it. Would love to be grossly overpaid as they are, but someone has to pay for it ….. like you, me, and every other taxpayer out there. In my opinion, we’re all getting ripped off …. except the CDC guards.

    Reply this comment

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