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STATE PRISONS' REVOLVING DOOR

They Answer to No One

How can we tell whether the guards are doing a good job?

June 13, 2004

California legislators, long indifferent to the failings of their state's perversely named correctional system, have done an about-face in recent months by holding scores of public hearings that have at times had a carnival-like air, with dramatic outbursts and hair-raising accusations. Now, with just a few weeks left to renew, reject or revise the prison guards' contract, it's time to put the theatrics aside and make some hard decisions.

The most obvious step is eliminating the 11.3%, or $200-million, pay raise the contract would give the guards this year, a slap in the face to the paramedics, police officers and other civil servants who are being asked to weather deep budget cutbacks. Tougher decisions must be made about the dozens of labor provisions now under review that dictate not only how much guards get paid but how they are assigned, promoted and disciplined.

One provision gives correctional officers the right every six months to pick which posts they want, based not on performance or seniority in the prison department but on their seniority in the guards union. Another provision says parole officers cannot be required to use a computer. Provisions like these strip wardens and California Department of Corrections chief Jeannie Woodford of their authority to manage.

The political climate of correctional reform today is similar to the one that faced educational reformers eight years ago. Back then, leaders of the teachers unions fiercely resisted politicians' attempts to devise ways of assessing school performance. The accountability measures, they scoffed, were being concocted by people who hadn't set foot in a classroom since 12th grade. Similarly, Mike Jimenez, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., bristles when he sees people who would be afraid to visit a prison pass judgment on the officers who face their dangers every day. Jimenez's attitude is easy to understand. His union's "leave us alone" defense, however, is no more sustainable or defensible today than was the teachers' resistance to much-needed reform eight years ago.

Because the prison guards' contract removes prison leaders' authority to manage, it's difficult to hold anyone accountable. And because it has no performance measures, there's no way of knowing whether the guards are doing a good job or not. It may be that the guards deserve a raise, but under the current contract, how can anyone tell?

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