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July 16, 2004 - The Sacramento Bee (CA)

Some Things Never Change

Prison Union Locks Up Another Victory

By Dan Walters, Bee Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

George Deukmejian, the most self-effacing California governor in modern history, characteristically entered the office in 1983 with just a few modest goals - mostly balancing the budget, toughening crime laws and building new prisons for an increasing inmate population.

Eventually, nearly two dozen prisons were built as the inmate population skyrocketed from about 20,000 to more than 160,000, and like all big political decisions, the massive prison construction program had unforeseen consequences. As spending on prisons ballooned from well under $1 billion to nearly $6 billion, and as prison payrolls expanded from 9,000 to 45,000 employees, membership in the California Correctional Peace Officers Association soared and it became, thanks to the political genius of its leader, the state's most powerful union.

The lightning-fast evolution of CCPOA from an obscure organization into a powerhouse is one of the most remarkable sagas in California history. By the time Deukmejian was retiring from the governorship in 1991, the CCPOA and its leader, Don Novey, had spent a million dollars to get Republican Pete Wilson elected governor, and eight years later, they committed $2 million to help Democrat Gray Davis win.

CCPOA's political influence has not been confined to the governorship, however. Under Novey's guidance, it spent many millions of dollars on legislative elections, promoting union-friendly candidates of both parties, and millions more on lobbying and public relations activities, all aimed at locking up more felons for longer periods and thus increasing the need for more prison employees. CCPOA supplied critical seed money for the "three strikes and you're out" ballot campaign and subsidized "victims' rights" groups that would publicly press for lock-'em-up laws.

The affable Novey's efforts paid off handsomely, especially after Davis became governor. As legislative hearings, newspaper investigations and official commissions have all established, the Department of Corrections became a virtual CCPOA fiefdom.

Corrections policies and sweetheart contracts with the Davis administration - quickly ratified by a compliant Legislature - showered big salary and benefit increases on union members, and the union gained effective control over internal Corrections procedures affecting its members.

A series of sensational incidents in prisons, coupled with rising media interest in CCPOA's power, began to produce a backlash a couple of years ago. A federal judge intervened in Pelican Bay State Prison, a few legislators began to buck the CCPOA and demand accountability, and an independent inspector general was appointed to handle misconduct complaints. Then voters recalled Davis and elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as his successor.

As CCPOA's political power ebbed, at least a bit, and the media clamor intensified, Schwarzenegger appointed a blue ribbon commission - chaired by Deukmejian, no less - to study the state's correctional system. The commission's report was blunt in its criticism of CCPOA's status. "The agreement between the state and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association ... clearly has resulted in an unfair and unworkable tilt toward union influence," the report declared, adding that the contract "contains numerous provisions that seriously undermine the ability of management to direct and control the activities of existing correctional departments. ..."

As the commission was doing its work, Schwarzenegger, facing a whopping budget deficit, was asking CCPOA to modify that contract and give back some of the large salary increases that the Davis administration had granted. Eventually, the union agreed to modest deferrals - but as the Los Angeles Times reported this week, the revised contract would actually increase the union's influence. One provision would allow the union to use videotapes of incidents inside prisons in public relations campaigns, while another gives CCPOA members more power over their own work assignments.

Schwarzenegger's pact, in brief, saves almost no money in the long run and undermines the overdue reforms that the Deukmejian commission recommended. The governor is trying to peddle it as a "huge victory." It is - for CCPOA.

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