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Prison Guard Clout Endures

April 01, 2002

State agencies and employees are sharing the pain of Gov. Gray Davis' attempt to reduce a numbing $17-billion deficit. No, wait. That doesn't include prison guards. In his new budget Davis not only spares them from belt-tightening, he hikes their pay 33.76% over the next five years. This shower of riches came four years after the guards union helped raise $2.3 million for Davis' first gubernatorial campaign and not long before the guards contributed $251,000 to his reelection. It will boost the guards' average base salary to about $65,000 a year, before overtime, from about $50,000.

There is nothing wrong with paying prison guards well. But proportion matters. Compare that figure to the $47,000 average yearly salary for the state's credentialed public school teachers, who must have a college degree and a year of postgraduate training. Or the pitiful $25,000 or so for a preschool teacher. Correctional officers, unlike even most police officers, need only a high school diploma and four months of training. Ebullient lobbyists for the guards say the raise will "conservatively" cost the state at least half a billion dollars annually by 2006.

The governor's office also proposes closing five of the state's nine private prisons June 30, supposedly saving taxpayers a paltry $5.1 million a year but ensuring job security for members of the prison guards union. The nonpartisan legislative analyst says even the touted savings are overrated and will be half that at most. Moreover, since the state's own prisons are at nearly double capacity even after a recent decline in the inmate population, closing private prisons may simply force the state to build new public prisons at $500 million a pop.

In a telephone recording made for union members, Jeff Thompson, a lobbyist for the California Correctional Peace Officers' Assn., crowed about the raises and the closing of private prisons, which he called "a thorn in our side as far as professional development." Davis had, Thompson said, "followed through with promises made in past years .... So the governor [is] a man of his word in that regard."

No legislators have challenged the powerful union's pay raise. Nor is anyone questioning the logic of spending new prison dollars on raises rather than programs like prison drug treatment and job training that have the potential to reduce repeat crimes by inmates. Fortunately, support is building in Sacramento for delaying the shutdown of private prisons until their cost efficacy and usefulness are studied.

Private prisons, first opened by Gov. George Deukmejian in the late 1980s to house minimum-security inmates at lower cost, are not perfect. But they have done well in recent state audits for their job training and community service programs. One is at the 288-bed Baker Community Correctional Facility off Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where inmates trained in basic rescue skills provide fire department emergency staffing for a desolate, accident-plagued stretch of the highway.

With record budget deficits threatening the state, there is growing evidence that private prisons, for some uses, are cost-effective. How can politicians ignore this alternative? The answer remains what it has been for years: Follow the political clout and the campaign money.

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