California’s prison guards lock up reforms

May 21, 2013

prison - California - CDCBy Sagar Jethani

After being threatened with contempt by a panel of federal judges for failing to sufficiently reduce the number of prisoners in California’s jails, Gov. Jerry Brown reluctantly unveiled a plan this month to further reduce the Golden State’s overcrowded prisons by another 9,000 inmates. Enthusiasm in Sacramento was in short supply.

Brown argued that court orders were forcing him to jeopardize public safety by transferring prisoners to county jails and offering some of them early release.

Prisons chief Jeffrey Beard was more direct, “The plan is ugly. We don’t like it.”

Two years ago, California’s prisons held twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold, and that led to serious problems. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California was violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court estimated that an inmate in California’s prisons died every six to seven days due to inadequate medical care caused by overcrowding.

Suicidal inmates were forced to stand in metal cages for 24 hours without access to restrooms. California was ordered to reduce inmate populations over two years from 150,000 to 110,000. When Brown said this January that California had done enough to satisfy the court’s requirements, he was threatened with contempt unless he continued reducing prison rolls down to the mandated target.

Three strikes

How did California’s prisons get so crowded in the first place? Golden State voters contributed to this crisis by approving some of the most stringent sentencing measures in the nation, including the 1994 Three Strikes Initiative, Proposition 184. The law mandated 25-years-to-life in prison for three-time felons, even if the third “strike” was a nonviolent crime. Strict sentencing laws enjoy bipartisan support in Sacramento. Republican legislators exult in preaching a tough-on-crime mantra — especially to the older, white demographic that tends to vote for them. And Democrats are surprisingly among the loudest voices calling for tougher sentencing laws lest they be called-out for being soft on crime.

Enter the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association, CCPOA, better known as the prison guards union.

Thanks to the mandatory dues paid by its members, the union raises about $23 million a year, and spends about $8 million of it on lobbying. According to Joan Petersilia, a longtime observer of California’s correctional institutions, CCPOA’s lobbying goal is simple, “More prisoners lead to more prisons; more prisons require more guards; more guards means more dues-paying members and fund-raising capability; and fund-raising, of course, translates into political influence.”

And what does that influence lead to? Outrageous paychecks, for one thing. The average annual salary for prison guards nationally is about $45,000. California’s prison guards, however, pocket a cool $72,400 — 60 percent above the national average. But that doesn’t even take overtime pay into account. Once that’s factored in, California prison guards often make more than $100,000 per year. California’s governors routinely push these pay increases through an obliging Legislature.

The union has been one of the leading backers of tougher sentencing laws. It spent more than $100,000 to pass the original Three Strikes law. It dropped another $1 million in 2008 to defeat Proposition 5, which would have reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes and allocated more resources to treating drug addiction.

And it spent more than $1 million in 2004 to beat Proposition 66, which would have reduced the number of crimes that carry mandatory life sentences.


Politicians are also on the menu. CCPOA spent nearly $2 million supporting Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The Legislature is a special beneficiary. Operating on the principle that the surest way to win a race is to bet on all the horses, as of Dec. 2012 the union had contributed campaign funds to every current state senator in California.

With all its influence and off-the-charts pay levels, you might think that California’s prison guards are among the nation’s best at what they do.

two-volume report was issued last month by the independent Office of Inspector General detailing more than 117 cases of prison guard abuse in painstaking detail. Examples include guards planning prisoner assaults and murder, buying prisoners drugs and alcohol, groping and grappling prisoners and soliciting sex from prisoners — including juvenile prisoners.

The investigators accused the corrections department of sweeping these offenses under the rug. But with so many contributions to politicians, what’s the likelihood that any real reform will happen? Is it any wonder that between the humanitarian crisis caused by overcrowding, reduced funding for rehabilitation programs, and rank abuse by the very people entrusted to manage prisons, California’s recidivism rate is the highest in the nation — nearly double the average of all other states?


To show just how much power the prison guards union has in Sacramento, consider one of the topics covered in the inspector general’s report: smuggled cellphones used by prisoners to run drugs and plan new crimes. According to a legislative analysis in 2010, the main source of smuggled cellphones is — you guessed it — prison guards.

In response to demands for employee searches, the union cited a work requirement that its members be paid for any increase in “walk time” — the minutes it takes for guards to get from the front gate to their posts behind prison walls. Going through airport-style metal detectors, which require the removal of shoes, belts, and other items, easily could double that walk time, which would allow prison guards to collect an additional several million dollars of pay per year.

That’s right: prison guards would financially benefit from the inconvenience of having their illegal activities halted. Last year, 20 prison guards were fired or allowed to resign over the cellphone scandal, but neither Jerry Brown nor the Legislature openly challenged the absurdity of “walk time.”

Some will see in all this a vindication of their preconceived notions about unions. But privatization offers no easy cure, either. Consider a proposal floated last September by Correctional Corporation of America. Cash-strapped states would receive upfront payments of $250 million from CCA, which would purchase and run their prisons. In return, the states would guarantee CCA a 90 percent minimum occupancy rate in these prisons for at least 20 years.

The proposal was rightly blasted by watchdog groups, which pointed out that such a deal would create perverse incentives for lawmakers to pass California-style sentencing laws across the nation not to protect public safety, but to keep the money flowing by throwing as many people behind bars as possible.

Whether the beneficiary is a public sector union like CCPOA, or a private company like CCA, the profit motive creates dangerous incentives when combined with prisons. America imprisons more people than any other country, and California imprisons more people than any other state. Instead of coming up with new ways to tie profits to prisoners, we should be looking for ways to reduce the number of people behind bars.


A good place to start is allocating funds away from guard salaries and new prison construction and into drug rehab programs to reduce recidivism. We should modify laws like Three Strikes, and legalize relatively harmless drugs like marijuana.

A step in the right direction was Proposition 36, which voters approved last November. It changed the law to impose a life sentence only when the third strike was “serious or violent.”

The outrageous salary increases and job protections the union has obtained should be overturned — by ballot measure, if necessary. The sanctity of contracts is all good and well, but despite this year’s balanced budget, California is still in a fiscal crisis from the pension crisis and other problems. If the people deem the continuance of such contracts to be against the state’s interest, they have the right to cancel them.

The union has learned to keep quiet in the latest round of debates, possibly because it fears becoming the target of a Scott Walker-style movement. But that doesn’t mean it has suddenly decided to pack it in. It is simply biding its time, waiting for the furor to subside before it goes back to business as usual.

(Many thanks to Tim Kowal for helping me understand some of the issues surrounding California’s broken prison system. Check out his blog to learn more.)

Sagar Jethani is a global marketing executive who studied political science and philosophy at Loyola University of Chicago and business at UCLA Anderson. He lives in Woodland Hills, California. This article is cross-posted from PolicyMic.


Write a comment
  1. us citizen
    us citizen 21 May, 2013, 15:21

    And they want us to give up our guns?! Bahahahhahahaha………’s target practice time now. 9,000…….how fun will this be! We ARE allowed to protect ourselves, aren’t we?

    “The sanctity of contracts is all good and well, but despite this year’s balanced budget,..” Wait a minute………when did this happen? Did I miss something somewhere?

    Reply this comment
  2. Tired Taxpayer
    Tired Taxpayer 21 May, 2013, 17:31

    @ US Citizen:

    Well, apparently, you missed the whole point of the article, which clearly shows how the CCPOA is undermining the democratic process in California. So, before you go around using people for “target practice”, how ‘bout you practice your reading and comprehension skills first?

    Welcome to CA everybody: “The state that chooses incarceration over education” where, at least one,US Citizen looks forward to shooting people who only became “felons” after the “justice system” in this state was completely subverted by the prison guard’s union. Irony much?

    Reply this comment
  3. us citizen
    us citizen 21 May, 2013, 21:07

    Oh I didnt miss the point at all. Seems you have no sense of humor!

    Reply this comment
  4. us citizen
    us citizen 21 May, 2013, 21:08

    Although I am going to enjoy this…………:)

    Reply this comment
  5. Michnrich
    Michnrich 22 May, 2013, 06:52

    This system is outrageous , there is no reform in the prison system because each inmate has a price tag on their head , they lose the inmate they lose money ! Why is it that they will pay over $150 a day for an inmate , but upon release most inmates are not eligible for $200 worth of foodstamps a months , or besides county ran halfway houses , there is no help for housing , like programs such as section 8 , if we could give them temporary help and make these programs available , in the long run it would save the state money and there is a better chance at rehabilition ! The system now is set up for failure ! I’m not saying reward inmates for bad behavior , but start rehabilitating , start restoring families , cuz all we are doing now is screwing up the kids left with one parent or no parents , and we are paying outrageous amounts of money to do it ! We need to press congress to stop putting money into the prison system and start putting money into restoring , rehabilating and education ! You should be more concerned about the white collar criminals that will steal pps money an higher a big wig lawyer , and nothing happens to them !

    Reply this comment
  6. Hondo
    Hondo 22 May, 2013, 09:34

    In 92 I went to a speech by presidential candidate Jerry Brown and he started off by trashing the prison guards union about these very issues. About how the prison guard unions wanted more prisoners which meant more guards paying union dues. About how he only accepted no more than $100 donations because he feared being in the pockets of scumbag unions like the prison guards. He wouldn’t take any money from any unions or corporations.
    Then he trashed the IRS about being out of control and how the tax code was 20,000 pages long and not even he, a lawyer, couldn’t understand a word of it, so how could we unwashed masses possibly be expected to figure it out. He supported a flat tax. I joined his campaign the next day.
    Jerry was right in 92.

    Reply this comment
  7. Mark
    Mark 22 May, 2013, 10:35

    I feel this entire article is badly misplaced and the author is way to influenced by the liberal left. Let us start with the issue of salary. This is California. Which is one of the most expensive states to live in. Let us look at two counties where three prisons are located. San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Does the author have any idea about the price of housing in CA? A family would be very pressed to rent a one bedroom apartment on $45.000.00 a year. The salary paid to correctional officers is the norm for peace officers in CA. Please see what the CHP, LAPD and SDPD are paid. We do have a history of a very few officers being caught bringing in contraband. And they do get caught. We have about 30,000 sworn officers. About three each year get caught. Mostly the underling reason they start bringing in contraband is gamblers disease. We are human. As for the idea of rehabilitation. Sense 1950 there have been over 500 different rehabilitation programs attempted to correct the criminals behavior. Can anyone tell me which one of the over 500 programs have proven successful? I bet not one. Not one at all. How can you rehabilitate someone who was never habilitated to societies standards to begin with? But charlatans have walked to the bank with millions in their pockets exclaiming I have the solution! Each and every one all turn out to be Clock Work Orange failures. Only after millions of dollars have been spent/wasted. Why is trying to point this fact considered to be some sort of evil scheme by the correctional officers union?

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  8. Michnrich
    Michnrich 22 May, 2013, 11:06

    Sorry , that excuse, that where the prison is located gives reason for pay increase is absurd , many California commute to jobs over an hour a way everyday ! And your talking about only 3 prisons , out of 33 , most of which is in the middle of no where , and I highly doubt that those are very pricey ! And only 3 officers a year get caught ? Really ? Or only 3 get charged with the crime ? There is multiple lawsuits and investigations in the CDCR and for good reason , sorry the criminals are not the only ones in prison they are the ones running it also , I’m not saying every CDCR employee is corrupt , but the majority are indeed ! And it’s safe to say , that every person that oppresses people or are a witness or involved in it will have to answer to God in the end ! So those that are driving nice cars and living in nice houses at the downfall of others , there day of judgement will come forth soon ! Corruption is everywhere in this day and age , but oppression only lasts so long till ppl revolt , check your history books or the bible , God rises up every time !

    Reply this comment
  9. Max the Hippo
    Max the Hippo 22 May, 2013, 13:57

    Like in any profession, there are unethical individuals among California’s correctional officers. That’s why there’s oversight to investigate bad behavior and fire or discipline those guilty. The problem with this article is it seems to use a few bad officers to smear the whole profession. If a plumber commits a crime, does that mean we should all be anti-plumber? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous.

    Most correctional officers are good people who do an incredibly difficult and dangerous job. Officers are paid well for what they do, but it’s not true that the state would save a bunch of money were officer pay cut. In Texas, the turnover of officers is so high because of officers’ low pay that they have to deal with a lot of costs that we don’t, not to mention that public safety suffers when officers are inexperienced and underpaid.

    Reply this comment
  10. SHERRI
    SHERRI 22 May, 2013, 14:17

    I can name a few programs that have worked.. The on ei went to for that matter I have over thirteen years clean and have been working at a County government job for over 10yrs.. When I was re;leased from Prison it was with a record of five felonies. I got my Ged in prison nad a rehabilitation program sent me to clerical school taught me about computers and now Im a very sucessful person in my carrer oh y amy spelling sucks at times.. Im human and as for the Officers who bring in contraband and are human really well i dont have issues with them caus ei know alot of the inmates have a problem to and are human just like me.. Kind of funny how someone can see them as human and not the inmates.. Stop building more prison stop overcrowding county jails and offer the inmates that want to learn and aquire skills to do so with incentives.. We are all human and deserve a fair chance locking poeple up like animals and yes some of them are treated like animals is helping them their families or society as a whole. I wish i had more clear answers I think evryone should be held accountable for their actions and Im very grateful thaT I WAS AND ALSO GIVEN AN OPPURTUNITY TO LEarn no skills..

    Reply this comment
  11. Frank Courser
    Frank Courser 22 May, 2013, 16:29

    It is not about good public policy,nor is it about public safety. It’s all about the money! The CCPOA has pushed and paid for stiffer laws that keep our prisons full! That is why the governor and legislature refuse to address sentencing and parole reform! That is why we spend 10 billion dollars every year on a broken prison system!

    Reply this comment
  12. Lynle
    Lynle 22 May, 2013, 17:44

    Why can’t they get an accurate inmate count? They take prisoners out and place them on buses to be shipped out to other prisons, While on the road a count is taken and yes there are less in that prison because they weren’t in on the count, just being transferred like cattle. It cost money to move them around. There should be stiffer laws on crime and not such a fast sentence to lock them up. What I don’t understand is why they can send a person to prison for under 10 years for murder and a guy that took pictures of his daughter and had porn on his computer and never shared any of it, who never hurt anyone, never raped anyone and is not a repeat offender, and NO threat to society yet got 405 years to life. When did taking pictures become worse than taking a life?

    Reply this comment
  13. baycommuter
    baycommuter 22 May, 2013, 21:04

    Yes, prison guards make more money than other jobs, such as most newspaper reporters. But I bet very few newspaper reporters would switch jobs with them. Texas, which doesn’t pay guards much of anything, has constant understaffing which leads to even more forced overtime and employee turnver.

    Reply this comment
  14. Randy
    Randy 22 May, 2013, 23:18

    Prisons for profit are the only ones who oppose releasing the people that are in only for drug offences and not violent acts or murder. Most of the inmates are in that catigory and can be reliesed with no danger to the public. The prisons want to keep them in only for the profit they will gain

    Reply this comment
  15. Sean Morham
    Sean Morham 24 May, 2013, 12:20

    Commons Sense reforms are needed. Cap the number of beds as a percent of the population. We could have an ongoing ” Califonia Felon” (think American Idol__ contest to select the most vile criminals. Gather up the winners, execute by firing squad, over crowding solved. Let the union keep the money from the contest(pay per view, internet, t- shirts, hats, etc, naming rights to prisons. “Mossberg State Prison at Soledad”..) after expenses of feeding the vermin their last meal( need to be humane), shooting them, disposing of the remains, and add prisons as needed. What’s not to like about this? The union has got to love it, pensions can be lowered to 45 years old with 20 years experience at 90 percent(spiking will not be allowed, hey need to get some reforms in negotiation). Think Common Sense.

    Reply this comment
  16. Kathy Harrington
    Kathy Harrington 26 May, 2013, 18:31

    So currently lots of inmates are being put on buses and planes and shipped out of state to make it look like the numbers have decreased. The number have not decreased, they have only been moved out – the State still pays. Yet there are many inmates who have served their time, older lifers who have completed their sentence, have a very low recidivism rate and are still being held for petty and unjust reasons – 66 years old and not released because an inmate does not have a GED? But he has a family willing to support him and a job promised to him and even if he didn’t have this job his family is cabable of his support. Take the state off the hook and let these older inmates come home!!

    Reply this comment
  17. Loco
    Loco 18 September, 2016, 19:43

    Rehabilitation doesn’t work for prison. I’m sorry to those of you who have family or friends incarcerated, but the reality is, rehabilitation only works for a small percentage that want to change their lives…I do believe in programs for the incarcerated, but I strongly believe In programs for the youth. Young children, kids in school that are going to be our future..It’s ridiculous that government is willing to spend millions of dollars in rehabilitating programs for convicted felons but, cut after school programs…I don’t get it.. Less teachers, higher amount of students, Lower after school programs, and reduce the budget for school district spending. In addition, the general public has no CLUE how much money the State spends (tax payers) in medical benefits to ALL the incarcerated in prison.. It’s appalling to me that law abiding citizens with health insurance, have to wait several weeks for an approval for certain medical procedures, whereas, incarcerated are approved same day (in most cases). Everyone has their opinion on what’s right, and what’s wrong….all I’m saying is learn the the true facts before basing an opinion…..

    Reply this comment

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