Two decades ago, the California prison guards union was one of the most feared political forces in the state. Its members poured millions into the campaign coffers of politicians who pledged to put more people behind bars, and ran aggressive ads against those who dared to cross them. Its boss, Don Novey, was a notorious character in Sacramento, a former prison guard whose tough tactics and trademark fedora earned him comparisons to Jimmy Hoffa.
In recent years, the union has taken steps to distance itself from that scowling image. Its new leader, Mike Jimenez, has publicly questioned California's "tough on crime" policies, even opening up to the press about the fact that his own son got involved with drugs and was charged with a series of low-end felonies.
But with Gov. Jerry Brown now pushing a plan to expand the prison system even further, many observers believe that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association bears some responsibility.
Brown unveiled his prison plan last week at a Sacramento press conference, standing with Jimenez and leaders of several other law enforcement groups, as well as the state's top Republican legislators and Democratic House Speaker John A. Perez.
His plan, which calls for the temporary expansion of the prison system's capacity by thousands of beds over the next two years, is meant to allow California to comply with a federal court order aimed at easing overcrowding in the state's jam-packed prisons. In 2009, a panel of federal judges ruled that the prisons were so crowded they constituted a form of "cruel and unusual punishment"; last month, the Supreme Court refused to review the state's appeal.
California now has until Dec. 31 to lower the prison population to 137.5 percent of its official capacity, and while nearly everyone agrees that the state spends far too much on the prison system and locks up too many people, there's no consensus on how, or when, to make it smaller. Senator Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, wants to reduce the system's size over the next three years by putting more money into mental health and treatment services. Prison reform advocates widely support a plan for the immediate release of inmates who are considered low risk, in part by allowing more prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.
Brown is alone in pushing a plan that effectively promises to prevent, or at least forestall, the loss of prison jobs. Although the state would lease space from a private prison, that prison would be staffed by union guards, creating a sort of detente between the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prisons giant, and the guards union, a longtime foe of privatization. The state would also send prisoners to county jails and prisons in other states, at a total estimated cost of about $715 million over the next two years.
"Politically, I think Brown's plan is brilliant," conceded Craig Gilmore, a critic of the plan and a longtime prison reform activist with the California Prison Moratorium Project. "He's given each side a little something, and he's essentially produced thousands of new prison cells overnight."
In 2010, the CCPOA funneled $2 million into independent campaign expenditures on behalf of Brown's gubernatorial bid, and it has also helped finance the campaigns of Democratic legislators who have generally supported Brown's agenda as governor. Although the union backs Republicans as well, its endorsements are perceived as being especially valuable for Democrats, who are perhaps more vulnerable to the charge of lacking a sufficiently tough attitude toward crime.
For those who still think of Brown as "Governor Moonbeam," the eccentric idealist who vetoed the death penalty and appointed the country's first openly gay judge during his first stint in the statehouse a generation ago, it may come as no surprise that Brown hasn't always been seen as a friend of the prison guards. "They had a very hostile relationship, going back to the late '70s," said Joshua Page, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and author of The Toughest Beat, a history of CCPOA. "It was only when he was mayor of Oakland and then decided to run for attorney general that they started to develop a mutually beneficial relationship."
In 2004, while serving as Oakland mayor, Brown joined the union's successful effort to strike down a ballot measure that sought to reform the "three strikes" law, which imposed severe penalties on those convicted of a third felony offense. That law is widely seen as one of the main reasons why the prison population has exploded.
More recently, in an attempt to ease overcrowding, Brown instituted a policy that shifted responsibility for the supervision of certain non-serious offenders from the state to the counties. Partly as a result, the state's prison population declined officially by about 25,000. But the guards have not denounced the policy in any significant way. "They're not making commercials featuring crime victims and so forth, trying to discredit the whole thing and discredit Brown, which would be the fear of the Brown administration," said Page.
Dan Macallair, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University and the director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, characterized Brown's alliance with the union as "nothing more than raw, election-year politics." Brown is popular in California, and he should have little trouble winning reelection next year. Still, Abel Maldonado, his likely Republican opponent, has harshly criticized the Democrat for not building more prisons.
Brown's office did not return a request for comment.
The CCPOA isn't the only influential law enforcement group in California, or the only one to back Brown's expansion plan.
"If you want to pick a right-wing group, the district attorneys are about as right wing as you can get," Macallair said. Of the 58 district attorneys in California, all but four are Republican, according to Macallair. That is especially striking, given that the Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature. Together with the CCPOA, the California State Sheriff's Association and other law enforcement stalwarts, the prosecutors have "lined up against releasing inmates, or some other more reasonable alternatives, and have gotten behind the idea of prison expansion," Macallair said.
Of all the groups that support Brown's plan, however, the union probably has the most fearsome reputation, if only because, as one prison activist pointed out, "memories are long in Sacramento." At the height of its power, from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s, more than 20 prisons opened in California, compared with just 12 between 1852 and 1984. The union has backed harsh sentencing policies, leading to more prisoners, more jobs for prison guards, higher membership revenues for the union, and, ultimately, more power.
In recent years, the country has begun moving away from the "tough on crime" policies that have made its prison systems so big and expensive. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder called for "sweeping, systemic changes" to the justice system and announced that the Obama administration would try to end the practice of giving out lengthy, mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders. States around the country have invested in substance abuse treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration, such as specialized drug courts. Texas has begun shutting prisons down entirely.
Even the CCPOA says it supports reforms that could lead to a smaller prison population, including an increased investment in treatment programs as a substitute for prison time.
"Ultimately, we believe that the Brown administration is open to implementing these types of reforms, and we look forward to addressing the long-term issues that continue to plague the California prison system," wrote union spokesperson JeVaughn Baker in an email to The Huffington Post.
But that enthusiasm may run only so deep. Asked why the union doesn't support the idea of releasing prisoners now, or setting aside more money for substance abuse treatment programs like those touted by Sen. Steinberg, Baker replied that the union's leaders have "the utmost confidence in Governor Brown and believe that he will address the long-term concerns related to prisons in California."