Part III of Corrections, Inc. from American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

April 2002

Turning the Key: California's Prison Guards

by John Biewen

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Like any big industry, corrections is a major employer. More than 600,000 Americans work in a prison or jail - roughly the same as the number who work in the airline industry. The majority of corrections workers are guards. In California, the prison guards' union has become one of the most powerful and politically aggressive interest groups in the state. It lobbies hard for tough-on-crime laws.

A Spring Day in Sacramento

In a crowded hearing room in the state Capitol, a middle-aged woman with red hair steps to the podium.

"Thank you for this opportunity," she says. "My name is Vivian Moen and I'm from Fountain Valley, California and my son was sentenced under the Three Strikes law for simple drug possession, 25 years to life."

Vivian Moen works at a Newport Beach hotel as a hospitality coordinator. She spends a lot of her spare time as an activist with a group called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, or FACTS. Her son, Doug Rash, is 35 and a drug addict. He got his first two strikes, for a pair of burglaries, in the 1980s.

"His first strike was taking a music keyboard from his father's house and pawning it," Moen tells the Assembly committee. "His stepmother thought that she would press charges hoping that he would get some help with his drug problem."

Strike two? A friend of Rash's had broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to retrieve his CD's from an apartment the two had shared. The friend had moved out of the apartment but still had a key. "So [Doug] went with him to the apartment to get the CD's. Her father arrived, had them arrested. Nothing was taken. That was his second strike."

Then, in 1994, Rash got caught with four tenths of a gram of cocaine in his pants pocket. Strike three. Rash is now in a state prison and he won't be free until at least 2014.

Later, on the same bright morning, on the grounds at one end of the Capitol, a band of protesters calls for changes in the Three Strikes law. They wear black t-shirts and carry signs like, 'Stop filling prisons with non-violent offenders!' They chant, "Let the time fit the crime!" They reflect a growing push in California, by ballot initiative and in the Assembly, to limit the state's Three Strikes law to violent felons.

California enacted the nation's first Three Strikes law in 1994, after several high-profile murders by repeat offenders - most explosively, the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender on parole at the time of the murder. The Three Strikes law allows judges to give three-time felons twenty-five years to life with no chance for parole. In the 25 other states that subsequently passed Three Strikes laws, only serious or violent felonies count as strikes. Not in California. Almost half of the state's third-strikers locked up since 1994 - more than 3,000 people - were convicted of non-violent third strikes such as drug possession, drug sales, and petty theft.

"Somebody that I love dearly has been sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-violent felony - extortion of $800," says protester Gabrielle Thompson of San Jose. Thompson has changed her mind since the early 1990s. "I voted for Three Strikes and I had no idea the implications of what I was doing. Everybody was in a frenzy. It was a very emotional issue. And I think like the rest of the general public, we assumed it was going to affect murderers, child molesters…. And it's a huge waste of our tax dollars and resources."

The opponents of Three Strikes have gotten a huge boost from recent court decisions that could affect hundreds of cases. Last fall, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Three Strikes resulted in cruel and unusual punishment in the case of Leandro Andrade. He was sentenced to fifty years in prison with no chance for parole. His third strike: stealing $150 worth of videos from Kmart. In February, the court struck down two more Three Strikes sentences for offenders convicted of petty theft, calling their sentences "grossly disproportionate."

This spring the United States Supreme Court agreed to use two of the California cases to decide whether states violate the Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel or unusual punishment by using Three Strikes laws to give long sentences for minor offenses.

Follow the Money

But Three Strikes has powerful defenders - in the Governor's office, the Assembly, and crime victims' groups. They reject any effort to soften the law. Follow the money behind California's tough-on-crime coalition and one group looms startlingly large: the prison guards union.

Just around the corner from the anti-Three-Strikes rally, on the Capitol's front steps, there's a distinctly different kind of demonstration - one with uniformed color guard, recorded music by John Philip Sousa played over loudspeakers, and the Pledge of Allegiance. A few hundred members of crime victims' groups sit in chairs arranged in neat rows on the capitol lawn. Poster-sized photos of murder victims line the steps in front of the podium. On the grass lie rows of white cardboard coffins.

Presiding at the podium: Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - the CCPOA. Every spring, the prison guards union sponsors this event, the Victims' March on the Capitol.

Novey invites Mindy Russell, a Sacramento police chaplain, to deliver the invocation. Opening her Bible, Russell reads a passage from the book of Proverbs that, perhaps, captures this crowd's feelings about criminals.

"This is a description of worthless and wicked people," she reads. "They are constant liars, signaling their true intentions to their friends by making signs with their eyes and feet and fingers. Their perverted hearts plot evil and they stir up trouble constantly. But they will be destroyed suddenly, broken beyond all hope."

This demonstration has amenities: a big tent for those who want shade; lunch; and, lined up at the curb, the charter buses that brought in rally participants from up and down the state. The prison guards' union pays for everything.

"I have to say that CCPOA is very generous for us. They are our number one helper," says 69-year-old Harriet Salarno, the head of Crime Victims United of California. Salarno's daughter was murdered in 1979. Her group is devoted to "public safety" - that is, tough punishment for criminals. Though the victim's movement is often called "grassroots," Crime Victims United and another prominent California victim's group, the Doris Tate Bureau, owe their existence to the prison guards.

"I got a phone call from Don Novey to meet him in Sacramento at his office," Salarno says, recalling her first meeting with the union president in 1990. "And I said … 'We victims don't have any support. I've been coming up to Sacramento as a bleeding heart mother trying to get legislation and nobody would listen.' He says, 'OK, then, well, let's us help you.' So we founded Crime Victims United of California together, and in fact our headquarters is at the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation, which is part of their organization."

A Successful Agenda

The prison guards' organization grew dramatically over the past two decades, right alongside California's prison population. While the number of inmates soared from 28,000 in 1980 to 160,000 in 2000, the union's membership swelled from fewer than 5,000 to 31,000. Their $59 a month dues payments give the union a $22 million annual budget.

In 1980, the union had a staff of four. Today, Union Vice President Lance Corcoran, a former guard and the union's chief spokesman, is one of 90 employees. "We have two in-house, full-time lobbyists," Corcoran says while giving a tour of the two-story union headquarters in west Sacramento. "And, depending on what's happening, we employ anywhere from three to sometimes as many as six contract lobbyists." The union has emerged as one of California's biggest political donors. Its Political Action Committees have doled out almost ten million dollars since 1998.

The CCPOA uses some of its clout on bread-and-butter issues. The average California guard now earns about $50,000 dollars a year - almost twice the national average for corrections officers. Under a new contract to take effect in 2003, California guards will earn up to $73,000. That contract was pushed through the state senate by Majority Leader John Burton and signed by Governor Gray Davis. The CCPOA gave Burton more than $400,000 for his last campaign. It spent more than $2 million supporting Davis's election in 1998.

Still, Corcoran doesn't like hearing the union described as powerful. "'Powerful' I think has sort of a negative connotation that we abuse that power in some ways," he says. "I think a more appropriate term would be 'successful.' We have successfully moved our agenda by supporting candidates that are willing to listen to our issues."

Those issues include not only wages and vacation time and training, but also tough-on-crime policies.

Defending Three Strikes

At the state Assembly hearing, the guard union's chief lobbyist, Jeff Thompson (speaking "on behalf of Crime Victims United of California, also with the CCPOA"), argues against any softening of Three Strikes. The law has helped stabilize the prison population, he says, "as the true habitual criminals have been incarcerated and off the street."

California's crime rate has dropped by 40% since 1994, a fact the union attributes largely to the deterrent effect of the Three Strikes law. The law's critics point out that crime dropped about as much in New York State (41%), Massachusetts (33%) and Washington D.C. (31%), none of which have adopted Three Strikes.

Thousands of union jobs are at stake in the battle over Three Strikes. If the law goes unchanged, a dozen years from now California prisons will hold an estimated fifteen thousand aging third strikers, most of whom would have been released years earlier without the law.

In the hallway after the hearing, lobbyist Thompson huddles with members of victims' groups. He sends them to lobby Assembly members against the Three Strikes reform bill. "Go to the main bank of elevators across from the Governor's office and there's a roster," he says. "Go get 'em."

Reform on the Ballot

Back in 1993, the guards' union was a leading funder of the campaign for Proposition 184, the initiative to create the Three Strikes law. (After the initiative passed, the Assembly passed the law that took effect in 1994.) Eight years later, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is sponsoring a bill to put Three Strikes reform on this November's ballot. She argues the nation's strictest Three Strikes law has managed to survive this long because of the California prison guards.

"They're essential to it," Goldberg says. "First of all they give an enormous number of legislators donations in their campaigns. We, including myself, seek their support."

The CCPOA gave two million dollars to legislative campaigns in each of the last two election cycles - including six-figure donations to several Assembly leaders. Even Jackie Goldberg got $5,000 from the union for her 2000 election campaign. She opposes private prisons, as does the union, and she's pro-labor. But she's troubled by what she sees as the union's conflict of interest on sentencing issues.

"You know, I support the correctional officers' union, their right to organize, to decent pay and decent working conditions. I find it not appropriate, in my humble opinion, for them to try to make sure that the prison population stays large - if that's what in fact they're doing."

It's not, says the CCPOA's Vice President, Lance Corcoran.

"I can't say it any more plain. I mean, I'll give you a copy of the purpose of the organization. 'Promote and enhance the correctional profession and protect the welfare of those engaged in it.'"

And to advocate in the political arena for certain kinds of policies?

"Well, I think that's part of it," Corcoran says. "I think that's part of the entire mix."

The union's activism on crime policy is no different from that of, say, teachers' unions, who lobby on education issues, Corcoran says. If teachers know about the needs of students, prison guards are experts on criminals. It's for that reason that guards and crime victims have a "natural kinship," according to union leaders. Both feel, first-hand, the damage that criminals do. "And just because an individual is sentenced to confinement, [that] doesn't mean that they haven't stopped victimizing individuals," says Corcoran. "Matter of fact, we now become, many times, the victims of their actions."

The notion that prison guards walk "the toughest beat in the state" has been the focus of a CCPOA public relations campaign in recent years. In one of several videos commissioned by the union and aired as infomercials on state cable channels, guards at the Corcoran maximum-security prison tell of being assaulted by inmates without reason or warning.

"You're constantly on the lookout because inmates are trying to spit in your face or trying to throw feces on you," one guard says. Another talks of riots erupting at a moment's notice.

"[Prison guards] see, unfortunately, the worst side of human nature day in and day out," says Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "I think that skews their impressions."

Having suggested that the union works to keeps the prisons full in order to protect its membership and power, Goldberg concedes that that self-interest appears to coincide with the union leaders' sincere beliefs on criminal justice policy. Goldberg says she's convinced that CCPOA leaders genuinely think it's in society's interests to keep repeat criminals behind bars for 25 years to life - even those who commit relatively minor third strikes.

"I think it's unfair to say that they're just trying to make sure they have a job next year," says Goldberg. "I don't believe that. But I do believe that they have a skewed sense of reality."

Given their formidable power, Goldberg says, the union and its lobbyists "create an environment in which policymakers lose sight of simple ideas like the punishment should fit the crime."

The CCPOA's critics say, in effect, to state policymakers: Ignore them. They're the prison guards.

The union says to state leaders: You'd better listen to us. We're the prison guards.

The battle goes on in Sacramento and across California.