In the running of California’s prisons, one would assume that the warden is pretty much the boss of the place. Not so. For instance, the warden doesn’t have the power to select which guards should be assigned to what tasks inside the facility—even critical jobs like checking for contraband, working gang issues, or the transportation of prisoners. Nor does he (or she) decide how many guards should staff various work details, or when inmates are allowed to go to outside hospitals.
Incredibly, all those decisions—and a whole lot more—are left up to the prison guards’ union.
Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drew a line in the sand in an effort to change all that—or at least some of it.
Here’s a bit of back story: In a 2001 contract, then-Governor Gray Davis handed over much of the running over California prisons to the CCPOA—the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—AKA, the union. When Schwarzenegger first was elected to office, he swore he’d stand up to the union leadership and the millions of dollars the CCPOA pours into strategically-placed politicians’ campaign coffers. But guards’ union officials easily outplayed the governor in the game of political poker. And, when the smoke cleared in the renegotiation of the guards’ contract—Schwarzenegger had given the union virtually everything it wanted.
This contract go-round, however, the governor is determined to wrench some of the power back into the hands of state prison officials, according to today’s LA Times. How successful he’ll be remains to be seen.
I’m not particularly a fan of Arnold’s but, on criminal justice issues, philosophically at least, he’s far more sensible and rehabilitation-minded than either Gray Davis or Gray’s law-n’-order predecessor, Pete Wilson. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it by Arnold’s actions, which have been largely held hostage by the union.
Schwarzenegger’s inability to stand up to the CCPOA has come at a high cost. Here’s how the Times explains it:
On his watch, federal courts have appointed a receiver to oversee prison healthcare and are weighing whether to intervene again with an inmate cap — or even a possible prisoner release — to relieve pressure on the teeming lockups. Hundreds of inmates die each year, and in many cases there have been allegations of abuse or neglect.
The union is a major roadblock for Schwarzenegger and his aides as they attempt to surmount the crisis, corrections officials say.
“I need some of my management rights back,” James Tilton, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview. “I’ve said, ‘I’m responsible for running the department.’ My goals are to make sure we make decisions as necessary, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Now that his back is really against a wall with the Feds, Arnold has finally gathered the courage to issue take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the union.
This has meant that the already lengthy contract fight, has become a full-on knock-down-drag-out this past week. The CCOPA has already slammed back at Schwarzenegger, filing a slew of grievances against the state, a tool that the guards have used before to intimidate wardens and state officials. “Don’t get punked,” says the opening pager of the union’s website. “The state’s ‘deal’ is a screw job.”
But before you shed any crocodile tears for the poor abused union, keep in mind that Schwarzenegger’s proposed a “last, best and final offer” includes a very hefty pay raise, reports the Sacramento Bee.
It’s not as if Schwarzenegger is getting stingy: He offered the officers 5 percent annual raises for three years, plus benefit boosts that would mean a total increase of 20 percent over the life of the contract.
A fully trained beginning officer who now makes about $60,600 a year would be getting $70,221, plus enhancements for physical fitness, language fluency and working in hard-to-fill jobs. A veteran officer would top out with a base salary of more than $85,000 a year.
And that’s before you get to overtime and other bonus payments that can blow guards’ salaries up into six figures. (Thirty-four prison employees earned more than $100,000 in overtime alone last year, and hundreds more earned than $100,000 in combined salary and overtime, said Seth Unger, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to the San Diego Union.)
In reaction to Arnold’s offer, CCPOA President Mike Jimenez said the state could “shove it.”
There will assuredly be more drama to come. I don’t know that I’m ready to bet the ranch on Arnold just yet. But I’m certainly rooting for him.