After convening a grand jury to look into allegations that guards at California’s Corcoran State Prison brutally beat 36 inmates, prosecutor Greg Strickland found himself in a political nightmare. Shortly before he hoped to win re-election in 1998, the guards union spent $30,000 to mail and call every voter in the county with suggestions that he was soft on crime. He lost. “The union took me out after one four-year term because I convened a grand jury,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has played a major role in electing governors and spread contributions through every corner of California. That political clout is now under scrutiny, the Chronicle says. Lawmakers and prison watchdogs say the union’s power among decision-makers has translated into too much control within prisons.
A contract overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature and signed by former Gov. Gray Davis not only gives guards big raises, it also gives the union more institutional control. Rod Hickman, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the Secretary of Youth and Adult Corrections, is a former prison guard who remains a dues-paying union member.
A union officer calls guards were “the Oakland Raiders of law enforcement.” They have pushed for higher salaries and better training for guards to ensure a more professional workforce.
The union’s rise is largely attributed to two things: a tough-on-crime fervor that has dominated state politics for years, and Don Novey, who headed the union for 22 years before retiring in 2002.
Gray Davis was endorsed by the union for governor in 1998 and received more than $3 million from the group during his years in office. The union is one of the biggest donors to lawmakers; last year, it contributed to 40 of the 120 members of the state legislature. State Sen. John Vasconcellos led opposition to a prison-building bond issue in 1990. The guards gave more than $80,000 to an unknown opponent who almost beat him. “If the guards don’t like you, they’re willing to spend money to get you,” said Bill Leonard, a longtime former GOP lawmaker.