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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