The Role of the Prison Guards Union in California’s Troubled Prison System

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at

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115 Responses

  1. The CA prison guard union might just be the least sympathetic such collective in the country, so you’ll hear little in way of a defense of them from me. But I do feel we’d be wrong to focus exclusively on the union — and nefarious Democratic Governors — without taking into consideration the wider political trends which were occurring in the US at the same time as the explosion in incarceration.

    The War on Drugs (the biggest contributor, imo, and conspicuously absent from this post), the rise of the “tough on crime” political narrative (which diverted funds from rehabilitation towards incarceration) and the general society-wide shift away from handling crime in a more holistic manner — punitive measures mixed with rehabilitation and prevention — and towards a single-minded obsession with force.

    I just want to make clear that I’m in no way denying the severe and deleterious affect the CCPOA has on CA politics. But I think we’d be mistaken in viewing the union as the primary antagonist in this tragedy.Report

    • Elias,

      I did acknowledge that there are other reasons more directly causing the initial trajectory. However, the union has calcified that trajectory by stiffly opposing deviations from that disastrous course. That is the premise of the post.

      Also, the suspicions that the War on Drugs is the principal factor driving the overcrowding problem are largely unconfirmed. Just 17% of California’s 168,830 prisoners at the end of 2009 were incarcerated for drug crimes. 17% is not nothing, but it’s certainly not going to get us the whole way by itself.

      Although the incarceration rate in California has actually declined slightly over the past 10 years, Three Strikes appears to account for almost 25% of the current population. Of course, further analysis is needed to determine how many of those 40,000 or so are truly trivial offenders. Certainly not a foregone conclusion.Report

      • The thing about the 17% figure is that (as I understand it) it doesn’t take into the consideration how many prisoners are serving sentences that would’ve been reduced considerably or even foregone if not for prior drug offenses.

        I’m deeply opposed to the three strikes law and those like it. And, again, consider the CCPOA to be a negative influence on CA politics. But it strains credulity to think that, hypothetically, were it to be destroyed, the wider culture of incarceration in CA would dissipate or significantly decrease. The rot goes deeper.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Elias Isquith says:

          But my question is, when Californians get to vote for some harsh new law and there are ads on television saying, “Vote for this harsh new law or your kids will die!” who pays for those ads? Is it the CCPOA? Or is it the CCPOA + some other groups? And, if so, who are those other groups?Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Ah, okay, I looked into it. One of the other groups that does quite a bit of funding of “Republicans, Democrats, and ballot measures” in California is the Corrections Corporation of America (great name!), a private prison company that has seen the value of its contracts with the state of California (by pure coincidence no doubt) go from nearly $23 million in 2006 to about $700 million in 2009. Who wants to bet they push for similar things as the CCPOA?

            Which, you know, isn’t meant to weaken your point about the CCPOA Tim; just to say that there are a few vested interests pushing for the laws to be tough and tougher.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Well we know they do. I was meaning to post a comment to this effect but since you’ve done a bunch of my work for me I’ll just follow up here …. The coalition in California that supports excessively harsh sentencing has three legs – the prison officer’s union, the private prison companies, and elected law enforcement officials who need to appear “tough on crime”.

              What’s interesting about this is that the elected officials with the biggest need to appear tough are Republicans, while the union of course supports Democrats, and the private prison companies generally go for whichever party they see as offering the best deal. This is part of why this issues persists and gets worse – neither party nor anyone with the cash to get an initiative on the ballot wants to stop it.

              Its not really fair to blame any one leg of the stool for holding it up. It takes all three. The plus side of this is that you only really need to get rid of one of them …Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Simon K says:

                “Its not really fair to blame any one leg of the stool for holding it up. It takes all three. The plus side of this is that you only really need to get rid of one of them …”

                Oh yeah, I think Tim’s point about the CCPOA is pretty fishing important here and I’m glad it’s up on the front page. It’s just quite a big fustercluck, isn’t it? I mean, if you want to lobby for more lenient sentencing in anything you’ve got quite a mountain to go up against.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Yeah, it’s one of the world’s easiest issues to demagogue and most difficult to discuss sensibly. Willie Horton, anyone? (Not the one who played for the Tigers.)Report

              • Simon K in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Indeed. I can’t think of a way around this – People understandably are worried about crime, and rationally don’t take the time to fully understand the details of issues. Politicians rationally try to appeal to the electorate’s rational ignorance to keep winning elections, and need money to do that.

                In Westminster style democracies this problem is solved by a kind of well-intentioned anti-democratic conspiracy where all the inertia in the system prevents any political promises of tougher sentencing from ever amounting to much. In the US the anti-democratic inertia is much less, which in many respects is a good thing. It just has bad consequencesReport

            • Tim Kowal in reply to Rufus F. says:


              I couldn’t possibly claim that the CCPOA is the only or even the biggest reason the prison mess is what it is. And though my thesis here is that the CCPOA stands in the way of reform, I also can’t claim it is the only or even the biggest thing standing in the way of reform. But it is an obstacle standing in the way of reform, and the tools it uses to block reform and set sounder public policies are those anti-democratic sorts that make the CCPOA a valuable symbol of the trouble with public sector unions.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Tim Kowal says:

                Yeah, I get what you’re saying Tim. That’s cool. I just had never actually thought about who pushes for those laws aside from politicians and so really I was just saying, “Holy smokes! The prison guard union pushes for them!?” followed by, “Holy smokes! Private prison companies push for them?!” It was more of a “yes, and…” than a “okay, but…”, if that makes sense.Report

              • john b in reply to Rufus F. says:

                “I just had never actually thought about who pushes for those laws aside from politicians”

                jesus, and we wonder why we get such idiotic representatives. naifs like this make up our electorate.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        Just 17% of California’s 168,830 prisoners at the end of 2009 were incarcerated for drug crimes.

        How many prisoners did SCotUS just tell California to kick out?Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Recently, California had a vote to downgrade growing pot from a felony to a misdemeanor.

    The vote failed.Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to Jaybird says:

      JB, pot possession is fairly decriminalized in CA. Buddy of mine got a DUI—his pot possession not mentioned—which was an approximation of but prudent dispensation of justice.

      Plus, I know a lot of folks that have medical marijuana cards. Their backs hurt.

      😉 Heh heh.

      The thing is, not everything has to be codified into law. Everything cannot be codified into law. Society—man—is just too slippery, just too diverse. I’m in favor of gray areas.

      Sometimes you get Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, sometimes a dickhead prosecutor doing the same. Some poor sap gets 20 years for a nickel bag.

      Well, maybe. I know it has happened, but I’m not sure we can use that as our basis for arguing the real world.

      The damn thing is, you can’t legislate gray areas, by definition, function and form. The law is a ass.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to tom van dyke says:

        Of course I agree… but the SCotUS recently said that the prison population had to be reduced to some still obscene-over-capacity amount and the legislature had an opportunity to make something that is, as you say, effectively decriminalized now from something that’s a felony to something that’s a misdemeanor.

        And they failed.

        This is something that indicates a fundamental disconnect somewhere.Report

  3. Freddie says:


    What. A. Fucking. Joke.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      Perhaps I am completely misreading Freddie’s comment but does this break it down?

      Tim: Here is my argument. Here are citations. Here are graphs. Here is my conclusion.

      small print: Tim has a job, does some other stuff, and contributes to someplace.

      Freddie’s response: “someplace?”

      Did I completely mischaracterize that?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        Sites called XXXWatch tend to be made up of hyperventilating crackpots who blame all the world’s ills on the unspeakably evil XXX.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          I googled boobwatch, arabwatch, and dinnerwatch and didn’t see evidence of any of that.

          Arabwatch actually brought me to a website devoted to watching television in Arabic.

          Boobwatch is, apparently, the name of a movie about which I will no longer discuss.

          Dinnerwatch took me to a David Lamb interview about the show “come dine with me” in which, apparently, strangers are invited to someone’s house where they look at various toys in the master bedrooms while the masters are making dinner.

          This show, apparently, is finally showing in Ireland when, previously, it had only been showing in England.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

            Try Jewwatch. It doesn’t offer picturesque views of synagogues.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              So Unionwatch is analogous to Jewwatch and, as such, I can dismiss everything that Tim has said here without reading his arguments or looking at his sources?

              I mean, I had originally thought that Tim had used Unionwatch as one of his main sources and that was what called the essay into question. As it turns out, that’s not the case.

              So what calls this essay into question is that he’s the union equivalent of a Jewwatcher?Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Tim’s spot on here, even if he doesn’t understand what unions are for (as he’s shown in previous posts). But then, the California prison guards union is pretty low hanging fruit. Hell, even labor-centric lefties hate them.

                As long as Tims’ not using this to make points about unions in general, or even about public sector unions, his connection to the almost parody site UnionWatch is irrelevant.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Chris says:


                Unfortunately he says in this thread that the CCPOA should be taken as an exemplar of why public unions in general are no good.

                But we can ignore that since it’s not in the post itself, I suppose.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Elias Isquith says:

                What specifically is different about the CCPOA, Elias? Are they just bad people, or is there something different about their position in the system that doesn’t apply to, say, road workers or tax collectors?Report

              • Chris in reply to Simon K says:

                Unlike most public sector unions, the CCPOA has essentially created its industry. Most unions, public or otherwise, are fiercely protective of the jobs of their members, but in most cases, creating new jobs through legislation and policy is beyond their power, at least on a large scale (as in the case of the CCPOA).

                The number of teachers, for example, is largely limited by the number of students and the number of schools that a state/municipality can afford, and there’s not a whole hell of a lot that teachers unions can do to increase the numbers of students (though they can lobby for increased property taxes). If we analogized teachers unions to prison guard unions, then teachers would be lobbying for increased regulations on abortions and birth control so that there would be more children to teach, and therefore a need for more teachers.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                Not convinced, Chris. Teachers unions do in fact lobby for smaller classes sizes, which is quite a bit more immediate in its effects than banning abortion. Of course it may also improve educational outcomes, but then incarcerating more people may improve public safety too. The only argument I see really is that the CCPOA has been more effective.Report

              • Chris in reply to Simon K says:

                It’s true, teachers unions do lobby for smaller class sizes, but again, this is largely limited by the factors I mentioned before. Prison populations are, effectively, unlimited in size.

                By the way, if lobbying for smaller class sizes is the comparison, then I’m not going to complain. That results in teachers looking pretty good.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                Plenty of people would argue that California’s insane incarceration rate makes the prison officers look pretty good. More, if you judge by results. Although that may just be that state laws more directly affect incarceration that class sizes.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                Electoral results that is. Not actual outcomes.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Simon K says:

                Ooh! Don’t get me started on those damned teachers unions, advocating for smaller class sizes. Don’t they understand that the best seat in the classroom is in the 32nd row?Report

              • Simon K in reply to Elias Isquith says:

                That was certainly always my view.

                Seriously, though – I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t. I asking whether there’s anything structurally different between what the prison officers are doing and what other public service unions do. So far it appears your answer is “no, but I happen to like the things teachers want”. This doesn’t really address the question of whether letting public officials lobby for more work for themselves is structurally dangerous.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Simon K says:

                Thank goodness politics and government and society are more than mete structure, then!Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                So you’re basically just saying the CCPOA is run by bad people. Okay. Not where I thought you’d go, but there it is.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Simon K says:

                No. I don’t think they’re especially comparable groups. I know conservatives tend to prefer discussing things in the abstract — compositional or moral — but I tend to think simply examining the situation as it is and making my determinations from there, with a minimal emphasis on “structural” ideological absolutes, works better. The CCPOA currently does more harm than good for logical reasons pertaining to the specifics of their work. I dint think the first half of that sentence can be said about the teachers unions. Nuance: how the fuck does it work?Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not a conservative. More or less everything else, depending on my mood, but not a conservative. That to one side, thank you for at least clarifying your position.

                I was looking at this from the perspective of groups having incentives that are not in the public interest, which is what I meant by a structural problem. I’m not sure how you get from structural to ideological absolutes. I tend to think all public service unions are dangerous because they clearly have an incentive to influence the government to buy more labor from them at higher prices. Exactly the same thing applies to government contractors, by the way, which is a good reason to oppose the privatization of government services as long as the government remains the buyer of first instance.

                Unfortunately while you and I agree that the specifics of the CCPOA’s work make their activities harmful, not everyone agrees. Indeed, it seems most people do not, since they keep voting for politicians and initiatives promising tougher and tougher sentencing. You’re looking at this from the perspective of who does and does not share your goals. Which is fine – we all have to do that, obviously – but there are risks to validating and endorsing the power of groups just because you happen to agree with them.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Simon K says:

                My apologies for assuming you were. Shouldn’t have done that.

                I wouldn’t disagree, though, that public unions are inherently dangerous. I think they serve their purposes and are not inherently deleterious — but they’re certainly capable of an unfortunate kind of power-grabbing/perpetuating.

                It’s just that when we talk about them in the context of American politics today, generally those who speak of their inherently problematic features are the same who’d advocate their abolition etc. I got lazy and assumed you were going to take us down that road.

                In truth, I’d prefer more private unionization and less public unionization but that most certainly is not the country we live in today so I suppose I’ll have to take what I can get.

                Last thing: I think the best thing about this thread has been the recognition on your part and others that, at the end of the day, the voters have the power — neutered and corralled though it might be from corruption or whatever — to decide whether or not they want to bother to change things. And when it comes to the CCPOA, the answer seems to be, when pushed, No.Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                Unfortunately I think there’s a tendency all around to jump too fast from exploring a problem to demanding that problematic things be made illegal or otherwise quashed. Its understandable because the public, quite rationally, chooses to ignore most political debate, but its not good.

                I’m really conflicted, because I *like* Californian-style democracy in action. Its just the results are obviously bad. The level of engagement and enthusiasm is really very high. It just exceeds the level of education people have about the intricacies of the issues. You know, I’m quite sure no-one really wanted some guy to be imprisoned for life for stealing his brother’s trainers after getting caught with a bag of weed while carrying a handgun in a school zone, but that’s the end result – three felonies, and you’re out. A lawyer, of course, could have told the voters that would happen, but who wants to listen to experts?

                I keep wondering whether there’s some neat constitutional or political hack to fix this. At the moment it escapes me. Clearly some leadership on the subject of what is and isn’t wise policy is needed, but the culture seems to militate against trusting the opinions of experts, and instead trusting your own “feelings” or the judgement of your affinity group even when you and they are clearly incompetent.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to Simon K says:

                SimonK, what I meant about not being able to legislate gray areas, gray areas and wisdom being necessary for a functioning polity. Call it the space between state and society, between law and custom.

                It does so happen that in California, after some initial Shylockian pond o’flesh prosecutions—a third strike for a slice of pizza, although the brute bullied it away from some kids—prosecutors have been using their discretion to bring the 3rd strike into some sensible proportion.

                On the other hand, you’d want to get Charlie Manson or some other monster on pizza if you couldn’t get him any way else. Capone for tax evasion.

                I’m really conflicted, because I *like* Californian-style democracy in action. Its just the results are obviously bad.

                Although I don’t “three strikes” is a good example, on the whole, I’m a republican, not a democrat. I prefer representative democracy.

                The CA initiative process is a very mixed bag. Stupid stuff gets through, esp bond issues, which are often approved. On the other hand, the legislature is cowardly and demagogic, and sometimes the people do what needs to be done when the legislature won’t. And often, the legislature is OK with that, because they don’t have to take the heat for doing what needs to be done.

                They’ve been trying to put an extension of a tax increase on the ballot. This is not for democratic vox populi purposes.


              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                I’m very happy to see the beginnings of moderation in the three strikes nonsense. My impression, though, its that this is a relatively new phenomenon of prosecutors explicitly saying they won’t seek life sentences for trivial strikes. I forget the details – probably an article in The Economist. Of course, discretion property belongs to judges not prosecutors in a common law system, but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.

                There’s a role for wisdom of course, but that argument is made all too often in the service of raw power. The guys in charge must be wise, after all, because why else would they be in charge? Allan Bloom, yes, I’m looking at you. The real question is how, in the constitution of a republic, do we find a balance between wisdom and the will of the people, and between aristocratic privilege and mob law. There’s always been a tension there. California is stuck with a system where the people’s will is only partially expressed and the mob is confined to ghettos, but at the same time those with power are not obliged to act with any wisdom. Partly because they’re so goddam hard to find.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                The union used its financial resources to influence policy. Citizens United, baby!Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The union used its financial resources

                Does this strengthen the analogy to the Jews, then?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Perhaps we could go Zionist instead.

                Unions are encroaching on the property held previously by non-union labor (the Palestinians in this example).

                The non-union, of course, want nothing but a “right of return”, if you will, to join unions of their own but the Unions know that if anybody could join a union, the benefits of being a union member become pretty much worthless.

                The problem came back in the late 60’s when Organized Labor had a phyrric victory over…

                Who is Egypt? The masons? They do have the pyramid thing going on…Report

          • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

            To be fair, Unionwatch is pretty fishin’ bad. It reads like satire, almost… almost.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Freddie says:

      Unions don’t need watching the same way corporations do, Freddie? Are they somehow incapable of corruption, of subverting the public interest to their own private benefit? They’re magically self-policing and by definition automatically in alignment with enlightened public policy?Report

  4. Member548 says:

    One really has to wonder about the sanity of the world where mere prison guards appear to be better compensated then the police officers who deal with the criminals in the open environment instead of prisons and jails that are ever increasingly well engineered, expensive and making a jailers job easier and safer.

    I’ll side with the “war on drugs” as being closer to a primary factor in the exploding prison population with the crooked union contributing. The sharp incline aligns well with Richard Nixon’s term where he doubled the DEA’s size and budget to use it as a tool to help crush what he saw as political enemies, the hippies, and the DEA and the “war on drugs” has turned into it’s own little industrial complex at this point with the propaganda fueling it well accepted by most.

    The 17% figure is really misleading. If a particular person is in prison for gunning down a rival gang member while fighting over lucrative drug turf he’ll be charged with murder and various weapons violations I imagine, with no mention of drug laws, much how few of the rampant criminals of prohibition era Chicago would’ve actually been in prison over violating the laws specifically dealing with alcohol.Report

  5. tom van dyke says:

    California attracts deadbeats and criminals like no other state, incl illegal immigrants too. No universal lessons should be drawn from it.

    Even the prison guards’ union. Its influence is over the top, for various and sundry public union reasons, but in no small part because California draws the detritus from the other 49, Central and South America, and Asia too. We gotta lock a lot of motherfuckers up, because we get a lot of motherfuckers.

    Charles Manson, born in Ohio, hit LA at 21 with a pregnant wife after his release from prison. Dude [born November 12, 1934] turns 77 this year, if my math is right. We gotta lock a lot of motherfuckers up and for a long time, because we get a lot of motherfuckers.

    Charles Manson, 77 yrs old. Is my math right? Motherfucker.

    Am I off here? I live here. Hey, I was a cool dude, I headed for California. If I’m a MFer, I definitely head for California. Where else?

    So I ain’t complaining, certainly not about the number of motherfuckers we got locked up. I liked Jason Kuznicki’s post about “percentages” and “signalling,” but there’s no signalling going on in California, I assure you. We can barely keep our motherfuckers locked up. Fuck “signalling.” %Report

    • Jaybird in reply to tom van dyke says:

      In a perfect world, this post wouldn’t have made me laugh.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

      Okay, sure there are MFers in California, but I’ve heard tell that they have the cutest girls in the world; that in spite of the midwest farmers’ daughters making you feel alright, and in spite of the Northern girls, with the way they kiss, keeping their boyfriends warm at night, that there are some people who wish they were all California girls. All of them, Tom. You’re telling me this is a lie?!Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to tom van dyke says:

      We’ve gotta pay for it, TVD, with real dollars. Whether it’s true and MF’ers from everywhere else in the world gravitate here or the bulk of them are home-grown, putting said MF’ers behind bars costs money. Where does that money come from? Every dollar spent on our unconstitutionally-crowded prisons is a dollar not spent repairing all those roads in such awful disrepair I fear for my car’s suspension on a daily basis; every dollar spent on high school graduates lucky enough to become prison guards so they can earn $100K a year so they can take bribes to smuggle cell phones in to prison gang bosses and then make the new fish duel in gladitorial combat for their own amusement and then be protected by the CCPOA from any consequences for thus acting is money that could have been devoted to elevating California’s educational system to once again outcompete Arkansas and Mississippi for the #45 spot in high school literacy rates. Or even better yet, money just not spent at all and therefore fewer bonds we have to pass.

      It’s all well and good to have contempt for criminals. They deserve it but expressing that contempt in a thoughtless (as in unthoughtful) way is the foundation of the CCPOA’s capture of our body politic. Uncreative thought has allowed our entire penal system to be captured by special interest groups and set us up for statewide bankruptcy. You don’t have to like criminals to appreciate that what we’re doing to them right now is unsustainable.Report

      • Mr. Likko, California politics refused to build more prisons when the need was obvious.

        I’m submitting simply that CA may have a higher incarceration rate because we attract more criminals, and blaming the laws and the system doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.Report

        • It seems like we get more than our share of the rest of the nation’s welfare rolls.

          Everybody comes for the weather.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

            How did Frank Zappa put it?

            Flakes! Flakes!

            They don’t do no good
            They never be workin’
            When they oughta should
            They waste your time
            They’re wastin’ mine
            California’s got the most of them
            Boy, they got a host of them
            Swear t’God they got the most
            At every business on the coast

            We are millions ‘n’ millions
            We’re coming to get you
            We’re protected by unions
            So don’t let it upset you
            Can’t escape the conclusion
            It’s probably God’s Will
            That civilization
            Will grind to a standstill
            And we are the people
            Who will make it all happen
            While yer children is sleepin’,
            Yer puppy is crappin’
            You might call us Flakes
            Or something else you might coin us
            But we know you’re so greedy
            That you’ll probably join us.Report

    • So what you’re saying is that we should deport these jackasses back to the states from which they came and let those states lock ’em up.

      Hm, not such a bad idea.Report

      • Simon K in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        It was tried. Well, sort of. Back during the depression the LAPD asserted a (totally unconstitutional) ) right to set up border posts on California’s borders and turn back “undesirable” immigrants. Meaning Okies, niggers and so on … Not a very flattering bit of stat ehistory.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

      Richard Nixon was a Californian born and bred. Tom is on to something.Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    Tim, I offer congratulations and big, big props for one of the most thoroughly and persuasively researched pieces of blog I’ve read almost anywhere at any time. This is impressive work.

    Others have made the point that CCPOA is not solely responsible for this political state of affairs, but I think it’s more than fair to suggest that CCPOA is a prime mover in creating it, a leader within the coalition of interest groups that has captured the state government of California and uses it like a gardening tool.

    Understated in your piece was the fiscal impact all this has on the state. Prisons make up about one-fifth of our state’s unsustainably bloated budget. And keeping up with the astonishingly-effective advocates for massive incarceration has resulted in, well, massive incarceration such that SCOTUS has found our entire prison system to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

    It didn’t have to be this way — but with the CCPOA and its political allies holding an effective veto so powerful that the Legislature is almost overt in admitting that the best interests of prison guards is the motive force behind not only prison construction and investigation of prison policies but also the very writing and implementation of our criminal laws, it’s hard to see how it can change now.

    The problem of the CCPOA is surely what Madison had in mind when he wrote of the dangers of faction. The solution to faction, Madison wrote, is setting factions off against one another to compete for legislative attention and favor. But who is the faction arguing for prison system reform? What advocacy group stands for the idea that prisoners can be rehabilitated and reformed rather than simply coralled at public expense? Does the public have any appetite for balancing the perception of public safety with the reality of a state budget not financed by massive debt? Depressingly, the answers appear to be “No one, none, and no.” CCPOA and its allies therefore are pulling all the levers because no one cares to, or dares, challenge them.Report

    • Tim Kowal in reply to Burt Likko says:


      The data took lots of late night hours to assemble and synthesize, so I appreciate the props. I did include a graph on the spending on the prison system as a percentage of the general fund over time—it’s at the end of the timeline. My figures show it now hovering around 10% of the budget rather than one-fifth.

      The prison guards union is an interesting case because both the left and the right have such strong yet disparate ideological reasons to both support and oppose them. The left generally favors unions and generous compensation packages and working conditions, but is generally suspicious of abusive law enforcement and of the kinds of pro-incarceration, anti-rehabilitation policies the CCPOA promotes. The right generally supports law enforcement—and even tends to give an exemption to the usual anti-public-employee sentiment to the men and women who lock up bad guys—but on the other hand typically opposes public sector unions. Part of this project, then, was to outline the various reasons that exist to scrutinize the union on economic, political/democratic, and humanitarian grounds.Report

  7. Tom, I know you’re quite sensitive to criticism so I’ll refrain from getting into specifics and just note that every argument you’ve offered in this thread thus far has either been patently absurd or reactionary/irrational in the extreme. Usually both.Report

  8. BlaiseP says:

    I wonder if some of California’s prison problems, e.g. the cell phone issue, aren’t part and parcel of the gangs? California sure does have a powerful gang system, especially inside the prisons. I’m told the gangs basically run the prisons for all practical purposes. I saw something on a massive and apparently coordinated gang riot at Pelican Bay the other day on Discovery Channel.

    You couldn’t pay me enough to work in that sort of job. Working down in the SHU, aka The Hole, running the risk of stabbing, having feces thrown at me, running like hell every time the siren goes off, prisons are hell on earth, with the minute by minute risk of being murdered. The system which puts these violent offenders into prison with no more safeguards for the people who must deal with them should not wail overmuch if they have turned into a venal and self-interested cabal, supremely unconvinced anyone society at large has a solution to their problems. Society is their problem.Report

    • Tim Kowal in reply to BlaiseP says:


      There is indeed some support to the union’s claim that its members “walk the Toughest Beat in the State.” California’s 6.46 inmate-to-staff radio, compared to the 4.47 national average, is the fourth worst in the nation. Short-staffing causes members to work overtime, thus inflating their salaries. This pattern has put the prison system into a death spiral: understaffed guards lead to overpaid guards, making new guards unaffordable and the understaffing problem worse. However, as I mentioned above, the CCPOA does not exactly have clean hands in this regard. It is the policies they helped enact, and which they fiercely guard, that have calcified this state of affairs and make it extremely difficult, perhaps even politically impossible (necessitating an order from SCOTUS), to begin to fix it.

      As I also mentioned above, pro-incarceration folks probably need to yield to more rehabilitative measures. For a variety of reasons—economic, legal/constitutional, and moral—prisons ought not be “hell on earth.” Again, however, the CCPOA does not seem to advance measures that would make prison more effective or less a “hell on earth.”Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        Please expand on this assertion wherein I am led to believe the CCPOA has purposely opposed hiring more guards.Report

        • Tim Kowal in reply to BlaiseP says:

          It’s unclear what assertion you’re referring to. I did indicate that the union has opposed private prisons, which would employ “more guards,” albeit it non-union guards. (Private prisons have their own problems, but it is difficult to assail them while simultaneously defending the CCPOA.)

          The more direct problem I refer to is that the CCPOA opposes policies that would reduce incarceration by employing rehabilitative measures.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Tim Kowal says:

            Private prison costs more than a public prison.. Prisons for profit are a horrible idea.

            Belay all such glib talk about rehabilitation, Tim. We know when rehab works and when it doesn’t. We can change outcomes in children before puberty: beyond that, it’s almost impossible. By the time these people hit Pelican Bay, they’ve got an arrest record a mile long. Recidivism data for car thieves in California says 54% of them will be back behind bars in less than two years. Curiously, it’s better than child molesters.

            Why shouldn’t someone defend the peace officers’ union and point out the obvious truth about for-profit prisons, that the experiments have been tried and found wanting? Though you’ve assiduously avoided saying you think the union’s the problem, you really can’t use that private prison line anymore, not in good faith anyway.Report

            • Elias Isquith in reply to BlaiseP says:

              In general I agree with most of your arguments ITT but the fact is that rehabilitation-through-education has quite a promising track record. To say that it’s ineffective beyond childhood is a vast oversimplification.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Elias Isquith says:

                Prisons already attempt to educate the prisoners. They attempt to teach useful trade skills. They even have law libraries.

                The lesson prisons ought to teach is Crime Doesn’t Pay. Insofar as that lesson isn’t sinking in, perhaps we can return to first principles. Pelican Bay isn’t like doing thirty days at county for a hit and run. These guys are doing serious time because society can’t deal with them on the streets.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The lesson prisons ought to teach is Crime Doesn’t Pay.

                What’s your recommendation for that?Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I would stop short of saying that the guards can’t have a union or that their participation in the public policy process is necessarily toxic. Nor that they don’t have legitiamte things to complain about — the work of guarding prisoners would suck, and the people who do that sort of work ought to be paid enough money that they aren’t getting bought off by the people they’re supposed to be controlling, and professional enough that they don’t cross the line from “control” into “abuse.”

              But in this case we see an example of the interest group completely taking over and allowing its unbridled self-interest to implement policies that are detrimental to the public interest. The best solution would be a reasonably empowered interest group arguing for alternative policies so as to require the public to confront the issue in a meaningful way. That just plain isn’t going to happen, so something else has to be done to counterbalance the political pressures moving the policy, and nearly all of the approaches that come to mind are clumsy, unconstitutional, or both.

              That’s why this is what we call a “hard problem.”Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

                In the education discussions, it sometimes feels like there is an undercurrent of “the point of the education system is to provide jobs and job security to teachers and their associated assistants” when we start arguing about the unions.

                It feels oddly similar when discussing the justice system.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                “it sometimes feels like there is an undercurrent of “the point of the education system is to provide jobs and job security to teachers and their associated assistants.”

                That’s an odd feeling to have.Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

                > The people who do that sort of work ought
                > to be paid enough money that they aren’t
                > getting bought off by the people they’re
                > supposed to be controlling.

                Yeah, uh, this don’t work. See: current situation. They’re already paid much more than the prevailing wage, and there seems to be no trouble getting someone willing to pass contraband.Report

    • Baron von Munchausen in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Well Blaise my man, so glad you’re back! (I wasn’t lying or being a wiseguy when I said you were/are a treasure to behold and enjoy.)

      I was afraid you just might pack up and hit the old metaphorical dirt road and ride off into the sunset with a guitar strung around shoulder, playing classical musical on your harmonica. (can you imagine a Bach fugue played on a harmonica! And to my joy, here you are. With a hundred sharpened daggers anxiously waiting to pierce my heart and all other life-sustaining organs.

      Of course, you know I’m just kidding, and I would hope you did not, for one single moment, feel offended, my friend.

      Rufus–just a brief greeting to Blaise–have NOT lost sight of thread! By the way, I can’t find your comments from yesterday–any chance you might have a free moment and link them? Thanks muchly.

      Let’s see, where were we. Yeah, prisons. Crime and punishment. I don’t have anything worthwhile to add to the subject. I have lots of unworthwhile things, comments, ideas–how tyrants and tyrannies going back thousands of years have lived and died by the utter terror and fear they implant in their citizenry. it’s always brutal and it’s always sadistic.

      Another thing. There’s a saying–just relying on my memory so forgive any mistakes, but it goes something like this: better a hundred murderers go free than one innocent man not.

      That’s an abomination of human deceny. It’s also a terrible lie. What sayeth you? Wilkommen!

      p.s. Wasn’t Cool Hand Luke locked up in The Hole? Failure to communicate, I think.Report

  9. This is a well-researched and fascinating piece, Tim. One question for you. You write:

    In 1980, CCPOA’s 5,600 members earned about $21,000 a year and paid dues of about $35 a month. After the rapid expansion of the prison population beginning in the 1980s, CCPOA’s 33,000 members today earn approximately $73,000 and pay monthly dues of about $80. These dues raise approximately $23 million each year, of which the CCPOA allocates approximately $8 million to lobbying. As Ms. Petersilia explains, “The formula is simple: more prisoners lead to more prisons; more prisons require more guards; more guards means more dues-paying members and fund-raising capability; and fund-raising, of course, translates into political influence.”

    Are these numbers real or nominal?Report

    • Good point. I believe they are nominal, as none of the numbers in that research indicated they were adjusted.Report

      • I did some calculations using the BLS inflation calculator; in real dollars, the 1980 wages would amount to a little over $57,000 in 2011, and the 1980 monthly dues would amount to $95.53. So, in real dollars, prison guard wages have increased about 20%, while their dues have actually decreased about 10%.

        This doesn’t alter the underlying point, which is that the CCPOA is a powerful political force that stands in the way of prison reform, but it does suggest that the real monetary benefits secured for prison guards have been fairly reasonable.Report

  10. Chris says:

    This is, I feel like pointing out, something that the “left” has noticed as well:

    Prison reform may not be a big political issue for liberals, but it tends to be for the actual left. And it will always be in the interest of prison guards to prevent reform.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

      I tend to think that the best solutions involve abolishment of prisons entirely.

      That seems pie-in-the-sky even for me, though.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        Abolishment? Abolition.Report

      • Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

        Another point for “bring back dueling”.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          When I go through my list of alternatives to prison, there ain’t a lot.

          Crooked Timber’s post mentioned the argument that we should go back to flogging (which, on my off days in the past, I would have agreed with) but they pointed out (rightly) that we wouldn’t get flogging instead of prison but flogging *AND* prison.

          In the past, I’ve also liked the idea of exile but there’s no place left to exile people to. (Australia was, seriously, an awesome idea.)

          I’m stuck wondering if universal handgun ownership would be worse than our modern prison state.Report

          • Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

            What about Venezuela’s Playboy Prison?Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

              I almost wrote a paragraph discussing alternatives that would not result in creation of perverse incentives.

              I regret not writing it.

              That said, that’s somewhat similar to exile… I’ve seen worse ideas.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

                A long while back I wrote a hypothetical question for my (not particularly liberal) readership asking this question: “If we had two choices, one of which involved treating prisoners like guests in lavish hotels with classes and social training to integrate better with society, which had a recidivism rate of 30%, or putting them in Arpaio tent cities, which made them suffer but had a recidivism rate of 70%, which would you choose?”

                The point of the question is whether punishment or deterrence was more important. The overwhelming response was to deny the premise. Question the hypothetical data and come up with other ways that Arpaio has the more utilitarian approach regardless of what the fictitious data says.

                I didn’t get an answer to the question I was looking for, but did get a refresher on something else entirely.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Trumwill says:

                People “denied your premise” because you’re inventing a scenario with only one logical answer, just so that you can later say “oh well even you admitted that punishment isn’t the point

                I mean, it’s like you’re asking “on the one hand you could eat a delicious donut which would spontaneously cure world hunger. On the other hand you could pound some nails through your dick. Which would you choose?” and then you’re getting upset that people mocked the question.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to DensityDuck says:

                An understandable concern, but I made it clear in a note at the end of the post that that was not where I was going with the question, that it was for a future post on justice and expediency. And I followed up with a post saying that I would actually accept some degree of higher recidivism for the sake of justice.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

                If we make it so that people who have, oh, assaulted someone else have better access to education that will allow them to make it in the world than many folks from the same part of town that have not assaulted someone… we’re creating a perverse incentive.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

                Except that the assaulter would have a criminal record. One step forward, one step back (maybe two). Further, how many people do we expect to commit a crime and go to prison in order to avoid paying tuition at ITT Tech?

                I wonder, to some extent, whether we go too far in applying our own cost-benefit analysis over longer time horizons to people that just don’t think that way. I mean, theoretically, making prison hell on earth should make them never, ever want to go back. Does it? I really don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Trumwill says:

                Well, the problem is that, other countries who have rehab-based incarceration also have free or near-free education. So, there’s no problem with people going to jail to get an education…because they don’t need to mortgage their liver to get an education.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Trumwill says:

                If only there was some way you could find out what motivates people who have been to jail. Perhaps one day we can devise some sort of means of communication that could transcend the barriers of personal relationships. A pipe dream, perhaps…Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Trumwill says:

                Elias: Well, I can certainly appreciate why my comments, humble and open to if not openly supportive of rehabilitative measures, is worthy of this antagonistic response. This certainly makes me more interested in discussing issues with you in the future.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Trumwill says:

                Jesse, I stand by my previous comment: how many people are actually going to commit crimes in order to avoid tuition at ITT Tech? There are other things, such as three hots and a cot, that I could see making potential criminals believe that jail is no big deal if we made the accommodations nicer and more safe. But not really education.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Trumwill says:

                I’m glad to hear that my ideas are intriguing to you. Perhaps you would like to subscribe to my newsletter?Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Trumwill says:

                A follow-up to my comment to Jesse, if we offered free education (of the vocational/juco/online variety) to anyone that was willing to give up their freedoms for the duration of said education, how many people would actually take advantage? Even if we assume the accommodations are more dormitory and less prison-like, I suspect that the number is limited.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Trumwill says:

                I was basically agreeing with you. 99% of people aren’t going to steal some Skittles to get free tuition. But, without question, if laws were passed allowing easier access to education in jail, Fox News would find the three guys who committed crimes to get a free education. 🙂

                I was pointing out to Jaybird however that in those countries that offer educational opportunities to criminals that non-criminals have even better access to education.Report

              • Trumwill in reply to Trumwill says:

                Who needs Fox News? Sadly, even my Democratic relatives will make that complaint.Report

          • Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

            > (Australia was, seriously, an awesome idea.)

            Mars. Or, more realistically, the asteroid belt. I’m only half-joking.Report

            • Chris in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              I think that was a movie or a book or something.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              Is anybody using Prince Edward Island?Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              In California, I’d offer the Farralon Islands as an unsupervised depository for lifers. Helicopters could drop food and new prisoners off every couple of days, the natural population of great white sharks looking for a nice lunch of sea lion would foil any and all attempts to emulate Alcatraz swimmers by supplementing their diet with the occasional Primate Jelly Tube, and an armed coast guard cutter could keep unauthorized boat traffic away. Those potentially eligible for parole could stay in the regular prisons on the mainland, but if you’re not ever going to get out anyway, off to the island with you! Hey, it worked on St. Helena for Napoleon.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

            So instead of going to jail, Lay, Skilling, and Madoff get exiled or challenged to duels? (More Heinlein by the way: Coventry and Beyond This Horizon.)Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              Instead of going to jail, Lay, Skilling, and Madoff get told “you can no longer be part of our society” and told to leave (I imagine that there’s an implicit “if we find you here after we escort you to the border, we have grounds to kill you”).

              This strikes me as preferable to forced sodomy.Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

                Except that they must be placed in an environment where they cannot repeat their crimes again. Sklling and Madoff, neither of whom seem to particularly understand that they did anything wrong, could do functionally the same thing in London, Geneva, or Tokyo, or for that matter Guadalajara or Rio de Janiero, that they did in New York, and with only moderately greater difficulty, reach the same victims.Report

  11. Tough Love says:

    The is no better place to start with MASSIVE outsourcing than California’s Prison system. Every guard could be EASILY replaced with COMPETENT staff for less than 1/2 the current “total compensation” (pay+ pensions + benefits).

    Multiple $billions in savings to taxpayers !Report

  12. Anderson says:

    Interesting post, the sheer increase in the prison population since 1980 is astounding. Though I think California’s unique form of direct democracy plays a strong role in creating burdensome laws (prop 184 most notably in this case) that cannot be rolled back easily and fostering a habit of “taxing ourselves like libertarians while asking for liberal benefits.” This mindset has created myriad budget problems, from prisons to education. The union plays an important role in campaigning for these misguided policies out of their self-interest (and the abuses you mention are disturbing, to say the least), but I can’t help but see them as just another player in a flawed system…Either way, I’m glad Brown v Plata has brought this important issue of prison overcrowding to the forefront because, by dealing with prison overcrowding, we must also confront the war on drugs, incarceration vs. rehabilitation, the consequences of direct diplomacy, accountability via the judiciary, and the proper role of public sector unions in society.Report

  13. julian says:

    Interesting thesis. Now that it’s been discussed, what can be done about it?Report

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