What, CCPOA, no opposition?

California prison guard union’s silence on Prop 47 smells funky…

Apocalypse Hoosegow 9_CCPOA EDITION_Where Excuses Go to DieIn 2011, the CCPOA claimed it had “played a decisive role” in electing Governor Jerry Brown after dropping $2 million on his campaign alone. The characteristic boast came in the form of a video called “The Winners,” griped about at the time by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez.

That year, the union endorsed candidates it favored to the tune of $7 million and received plenty in exchange. Of 107 candidates it backed in California, 104 were elected.

It’s no secret that the CCPOA is one of the most influential unions in American history: it’s been building that power in earnest since the ‘80s, when CCPOA-sponsored legislation began to be successful about 80% of the time. Not surprisingly, this period includes some of California’s most intractable laws, such as 1984’s infamous Three Strikes legislation. “The formula is simple,” writes Joan Petersilia in Volume 37 of Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. “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.” Naturally, the CCPOA has a vested interest in keeping incarceration and recidivism rates high.

Don Novey_Labor Icon and Mickey Spillane Celebrity LookalikeOrdinary Times writer Tim Kowal offers a thorough and concise explanation of how California’s prison system, once a model of corrections management, pulled a hard u-turn during the tenure of Don Novey, who ran the CCPOA from 1980 to 2002 and made ‘roid rage look like lollipops. Under Novey’s leadership, the union’s influence grew exponentially – right alongside the 18 prisons California built between 1985 and 1995. One state senator remarked of the CCPOA at the time, “If you screw them, they make life miserable.” I’m surprised a movie biopic hasn’t been made about the Hoffa-esque Novey, who notoriously stuck around to keep a hand in things even after he left office.

Now, if you don’t have your own thoughts on how badly things need to change, just skimming the Lopez and Kowal pieces will serve as a fine introduction to the whys of prison reform (for a bit more, see Brown v. PlataPlata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger). But it’s only now that the public has become aware of how poorly our war on drugs/three strikes mentality has affected state and national welfare that the CCPOA itself has started to modify its guards-are-your-neighbors; prisoners-are-scum-of-the-earth rhetoric.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYes, the same CCPOA that for years worked to beat back reforms, rehabilitation, house cleaning, and operational transparency, is now taking a page from the California Department of Corrections’ tactical handbook. See, the CDC added an “R” for “rehabilitation” back in 2005 – after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used words like “depravity,” “unconstitutional,” and “failure” to describe the department’s appalling inadequacies.

These days, the CCPOA almost sounds like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), that infamous private prison profiteer. Questioned as to why, about a year ago, the CCA had begun acquiring firms that operate halfway houses and other community-based corrections facilities, CEO Damon Hininger insisted that “reentry programs and reducing recidivism are 100 percent aligned with our business model.”

Corrections Corporation of America_The largest private corrections company in the United States Why all the shifting priorities? Is public sentiment so changed that it can no longer be swayed by old school fear-mongering? Why, for instance, does the CCPOA seem so silent on California’s Prop 47 initiative, which seeks to reclassify non-serious/non-violent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and allow re-sentencing of inmates serving time for crimes newly eligible for reclassification. The legislation would appear to strike at the very heart of the CCPOA’s unwavering job security interests, so why no political muscle flexing this time around?

Why? Because this union is good, that’s why. The CCPOA, with its fortress of lawyers and public image strategists, is as coldly shrewd as ever. That victory video Steve Lopez disliked has since been pulled from the CCPOA website, but not before its narrator’s most cautionary words could be captured: “We win because we never quit, and that’s what makes us CCPOA.”

CCPOA_Labor Aristocracy_Where Excuses Go to Die

So what does the CCPOA want? Like most unions, more money (remember: money is power), better benefits, and improved job security.

The problem: If California genuinely reduces its current rate of incarceration, perks like hazard pay, extra shifts, and overtime may be in jeopardy.

CCPOA Profiled by Joshua PageSo ideally, the CCPOA wants to keep prisons full. In the old days, to facilitate this, they’d just:

  1. Be anti-private prison (tactics: CCPOA kept financial pressure on legislators and used a “they’re worse than we are because they have no oversight” PR strategy with the public.)
  2. Back tough-on-crime legislation (tactics: while accepting no culpability for increased recidivism rates, the CCPOA helped put more new people behind bars by effectively and publicly tying lower crime rates to higher incarceration rates.)
  3. Trot out the victims (tactics: the CCPOA has long been notorious for co-opting victims and their families for media appearances in support of a “lock ‘em up” agenda.)
  4. Heighten fear around reentry failures (tactics: with an emphasis on the differences between what CCPOA members do and what their “lesser” county counterparts are able to handle, reentry and early release failures were publicized widely as detrimental to public safety.)

Now, with the public tide continuing to turn in favor of civil liberties and genuine rehabilitation, the CCPOA must shift its strategy to:

  1. Maintain an anti-private prison stance (tactic: those guys can always be made to look worse, which makes the CCPOA look better by comparison.)
  2. Make federal oversight go away so the union can get back to doing things its way (tactics: acknowledge that the only way to offload the feds is to appear to comply with population reductions and operational improvements. Work with paid-for politicians to increase capacity restrictions at state facilities to make the problem seem less egregious, then appear to go along with realignment to county facilities.)
  3. Keep more state incarceration funds where they belong – with CCPOA members (tactic: even nominal compliance with federal requirements can curtail expensive class-action lawsuits around, say, subhuman confinement conditions.)CALIFORNIA TAXPAYERS - Behind the same bars as its prisoners
  4. Hedge bets vis-à-vis public sentiment, including legislation like Prop 47 (tactic: even as they continue to tell their members that they “walk the toughest beat in the state,” the CCPOA can make a highly visible “we’ve seen the light” shift from lock-up-those-assholes mentality to pro-rehab and successful reentry, like it does in its “Beyond Prisons” booklet. Public acknowledgment that recidivism’s detriments outweigh its benefits, coupled with complete silence on the countless years and dollars spent by the union to ensure high recidivism rates, should help achieve this goal.)
  5. Embrace the digital age (tactic: make a movie! When a union can rewrite history with the unmitigated gall of a Michael Bay film, making it look like guards are just as afraid of mass incarceration as the public is – holy crap! Be sure to open the video by sure-footedly sidestepping all blame for turning California prisons into a union-made drainpipe for public resources and lost lives.)
  6. Remember that realignment offers protection against the horrors of early release, which would really impact CCPOA job security (tactics: when things go wrong with realignment, or with a piece of legislation that cuts the union out of the pie, staunchly defend public safety by wondering aloud where things broke down – it will always be on someone else’s watch! Then point out how only CCPOA members can truly handle “these people” and must therefore be included in any future solution. Insist, for instance, that the in-prison reentry programs you conduct yourselves are better. Ca-ching!)

YES_ON_47_Where Excuses Go to DieBasically, the CCPOA doesn’t really need to care what happens with Prop 47; it can afford to sit this one out, because it’s spent the last 35+ years preparing for the tide to turn. At this point, any reduction in the prison population that may result from 47’s passage won’t make much of a dent in the union’s comfort, strength, or lobbying power. Sure, prison reform might suddenly be a bipartisan issue, corralling fiscal conservatives and lefties in the same arena, but when you wield the power of omission and obfuscation like these guys do, you can afford to throw the opposition a bone.

I didn’t write Where Excuses Go to Die to knock correctional officers, but to tell the public about civilian prison educators who helped me self-rehabilitate, as it was the only option. Because of them, I did find a second chance  –not in the system–  in the compassion and humanitarianism of those who believed in what they were doing, rather than in higher-ups they could hide behind.

And while the CCPOA’s new rhetoric may sound good, it’s not likely their agenda really has this sort of authenticity in mind. So we have no excuse not to keep an eye on the money – and the influence to which it leads.