Just how powerful is California’s prison guards union?

Flickr photo by Son of Groucho. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sonofgroucho/3821549716/

Police have a prominent role in society – the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly. And one group of law enforcement officers also have a lot of political sway.

From Jerry Brown’s successful campaign for governor, to California’s Three Strikes Law, to the state’s Proposition 9, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) are a powerful lobbying group. They’re also known as the “prison guards union.” In 2010 alone, they spent over $1 million in lobbying political parties.

For more on the prison guards’ union, KALW’s criminal justice editor Rina Palta joined Hana Baba in the studio.

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HANA BABA: Welcome, Rina.

RINA PALTA: Hi, Hana.

BABA: So, we’re talking about the correctional officers’ union, which is known as one of the most dominant political forces in the state. Where does this reputation come from?

PALTA: The CCPOA has really been a political powerhouse in the state for a long time. Part of the reason is they’re relatively large. The prison system is a big employer in the state, and working as a correctional officer requires you to join the union, so they’ve got something like 30,000 members. They’ve also had some very key victories in the political sphere. The union has been very successful in helping state politicians get elected – like Jerry Brown, former Governor Gray Davis, former State Senator John Burton. They’ve gotten ballot initiatives passed, like California’s Three Strikes Law and Marcy’s Law, which is also known as the Victims’ Bill of Rights. It’s hard to name all the campaigns the union has given money to, because the list just goes on and on. This is a group that’s considered essentially omnipotent in state politics.

BABA: How did they get to this point of being so powerful?

PALTA: They’re very politically savvy. The union, unlike many unions, has spread out their money among Democrats and Republicans. They’ve also managed to demonstrate that they actually make a difference in elections. University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Joshua Page recently published a book about the union and its history. I spoke with Page recently, and here’s what he had to say about how the union built its power.

JOSHUA PAGE: So what they would do is they would selectively go put a lot of money into, say, defeating a legislator. Which would spread the message for other political people, maybe aspiring politicians, that if you go against the union’s interests or what it was supporting, there was the potential that they would come after you or take you out electorally.

PALTA: And that way, Page says, they developed a reputation that’s actually bigger and grander than perhaps the power they actually have.

PAGE: I call this the specter of the CCPOA. And so they skillfully created this really powerful image to where, even if they weren’t behind things, or influencing, there was the perception that they were. And this had a real value to them, because just the threat that they’d oppose someone for office, for a warden or a ballot initiative, could be enough to make others change their behavior.

BABA: I’m wondering how the union is dealing with what many are calling a “prison crisis” in California. The Supreme Court has ordered the state to reduce its prison population. People are starting to get frustrated with the $10 billion-plus prison budget and public employee contracts. How is the union dealing with all of that?

PALTA: I ran that very question by JeVaugh Baker, a spokesman for CCPOA. I asked Baker to describe the union’s top priorities and here’s what he said.

JEVAUGH BAKER: I think that right now we have a system that rehabilitates in name only, and that’s something that the association would like to take a look at.

PALTA: Now, that’s not what you might have heard from the CCPOA a decade ago. It’s definitely a change in their rhetoric. These days, the CCPOA’s talking about rehabilitation programs, they’re talking about tackling prison overcrowding, they’re talking about reforming the system. There’s relatively little tough-on-crime talk coming out of the union leadership lately.

BABA: So is the union turning their political clout in a new direction?

PALTA: Well, the CCPOA has a sibling organization called Crime Victims United of California. Take a listen to an ad produced by them recently, and you’ll hear that they haven’t changed their tune at all.

NINA SALARNO-ASHFORD (from CVUC ad): Governor! Your parole policies are dangerous. Three officers killed by felons on parole since you took office. Thousands of parole violators left on the street…

PALTA: That’s Nina Salarno-Ashford in an ad produced by Crime Victims United of California, a victims rights group that pushes highly punitive policies in the name of serving victims of crime. Crime Victims United is a powerful political force in the state. And what Joshua Page does in his book is make a clear connection between this group and the CCPOA, which he says essentially helped build, fund, and sustain this political action group. And the CCPOA continues to support this group. Page says that while the CCPOA is talking reform, they have this other group, Crime Victims United, out there lobbying in Sacramento against reform.

PAGE: They still finance this victims’ rights group, Crime Victims United – which is the most influential crime victims’ group in the state, if not the country – that’s incredibly punitive and opposes all efforts to shorten or reduce prison sentences and parole terms. As long as the union is financing this group, basically giving it the tools to do what it can, this reform rhetoric ring hollow.

PALTA: So it’s hard to say where the union’s heart is. They seem to want some reform; they want less crowded, safer working conditions for their employees. But when it comes to changing sentencing laws, or really reforming the system, it’s still a mixed bag.

Joshua Page is the author of The Toughest Beat, a new book about the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Rina Palta is KALW’s criminal justice editor. For more on the CCPOA and prison politics, visit our blog, The Informant.