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STATE PRISONS' REVOLVING DOOR

The Guards Own the Gates

November 24, 2003

Teppan-yaki feasts, cliff-diving ceremonies at historic Black Rock and mai tais served at a 142-yard swimming pool are some of the festivities awaiting the more than two dozen California state legislators who began arriving today at a Kaanapali Beach resort in Maui for a junket sponsored by California's powerful prison guards union.

State Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who will be paying for the trip from his campaign account, says it's merely "an organized opportunity for legislators to get away in a relaxed and informal atmosphere." This is the same Jim Battin who has taken $15,500 in contributions from the union in three years. The evidence is overwhelming that state politicians who have received big money (in addition to pleasant holidays) from the union have done its bidding. Take Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who attended last year's luau but not this one, perhaps because as a top advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger he is too busy to get away. The union has showered Brulte with at least $114,000 in campaign contributions in the last three years and he is trying to persuade the governor to close the state's last five private prisons -- nonunion shops that the guards union views as a job threat.

The guards' domination would not be so disastrous if the union supported the training, counseling and education programs that keep communities safer by reducing inmates' relapse into crime after their release. But the union has fought reforms with a might and unity that few other labor organizations can muster.

Last year, for example, then-Gov. Gray Davis, who had received $3.4 million from the guards union since 1998, persuaded legislators to shutter four of the state's nine private prisons and to cut prison vocational programs. The cuts left more money to raise the average prison guard's salary by 37.2% over three years, to $73,428 by 2006. That's more than twice the average salary in the next-highest-paying state. The average California teacher salary is about $54,000. The guards' contract eliminates virtually all restrictions on sick leave; the union also undermined oversight by successfully pressing for a big cut in the inspector general's budget.

Now, the union is trying to terminate college and vocational education programs in prisons statewide. Schwarzenegger should question why the state would want to close all of its private prisons when the best of them provide drug treatment, counseling and moral and vocational education for $55 a day -- a bargain compared with the $78 a day for just a bed at a minimum-security public prison. Private prisons have had their problems, including a riot last month at the Eagle Mountain men's prison in which two inmates were killed. Yet they provide laboratories for change, for reforms the public prisons shun.

The union's usual response to critics is that its members have America's toughest jobs. Their jobs, however, are made tougher by the union's knee-jerk opposition to therapeutic and educational programs, like those in other states, that also reduce prisoners' fury and make them more controllable.

The ultimate victims of this feudal control of the state's prisons are the law-abiding people, often poor, who live and work in the neighborhoods in which prisoners are released, full of anger and devoid of skills.

The elected officials so hungry for the guards' campaign donations have been incapable of changing the system. The new governor, however, is already making changes at the top of the corrections bureaucracy and may prove himself able to say "No."

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Next: State prisons need competition.

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