The San Jose Mercury News which, for as long as I can remember, has been the standard bearer for Bay Area reporting on prison issues produced a short multimedia piece on Monday.


The presentation is mainly a prison official’s description of the conditions, needs and startling figures at California Institute for Men, Chino. This facility was the scene of riots in August. It is also the CDCr Reception Center for Southern California, which means all new men processed into the system will first go here, before given security classification and shipped elsewhere. Of course, the mix of over-population, diverse and historically antagonistic groups, and non-permanence leads to a tense institution.

My main problem with the piece however is that I – unlike the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – cannot ignore recent history, lobbying, political action committee millions and the resultant harsh sentencing.

Since the 1980s, the CCPOA – the prison guards union – bolstered its membership from 2,600 to over 45,000, drew in union fees to swell its coffers and began hurling them at victims rights groups, tough on crime politicians and public fear campaigns.

The CCPOA grew year-on-year as well as any corporation. It’s shareholders however were not a disparate public, but a 30,000 strong (comparatively) homogeneous group within a burgeoning prison industry and a Napoleon-complex.

Prior to the mid 80s the CCPOA had virtually no political capital. They were a small union in a small state sector … and they were largely ignored. By 1992 the CCPOA operated the state’s second largest PAC. By the year 2000 the CCPOA was the pariah of the union community in California. The CCPOA bankrolled and won ballot initiatives that meant increased prison funding and construction. Other unions, particularly the teachers, were not blind to this boom in incarceration … all the while public education funds dwindled.

All of this is very difficult for me to forget.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to legislate to put a cap on union spending during his first year in office, he was in fact only interested in controlling the rampant CCPOA. It wasn’t a classic anti-labour Republican maneuver but rather the absolute necessary move if California was to reign in prison spending. In some respects it was the politics of a progressive! Schwarzenegger failed doubly. The initiative was heavily defeated and he forced the CCPOA and other unions closer together by virtue of a shared enemy.

The CCPOA took advantage of the situation and stepped back into line with the agendas of other unions. For years it had unilaterally forced its agenda through. But the CCPOA could see the ‘good times’ were coming to an end. No new prisons have been built in California since 1998. That figure explains the overcrowding, but also reflects recent political and public rejection of yet more warehousing without rehabilitation (as has been the norm).

So while we can all share in a dismay, even disgust in the failure of government to provide adequate housing or programs for those it takes into custody, we should all be sharing in the knowledge of how this situation came about. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; the CCPOA are guilty as hell – the rank and file change, the leadership less so, but the organisation remains the same.

This is what I think of when I see correctional officers under stress and duress … I think that their union sold them out a long time ago.

The CCPOA made it’s bed.

UC Berkeley’s Dept. of Governmental Studies provides this brief but comprehensive history of the CCPOA.

The San Jose Mercury News has its own Photoblog.