In the soap opera that is statehouse politics, the role of leering villain is played by one unusually nasty organization that has struck all but a few legislators dumb with fear and is now brashly demonstrating that it controls Gov. Gray Davis.
I speak, of course, of the state prison guards' union, a deeply incompetent body of workers who cannot keep the Mexican Mafia and hard drugs from coursing through state prisons but are being heaped with raises and highly inappropriate workplace concessions by Davis and the Legislature.
California prison guards are by far the most powerful-and the most bizarre-prison guard union in the nation. They are a freak of history and circumstance, 20,000-plus lightly trained men and women who require only a GED (union member lieutenants and captains require more education) yet have risen to control the outcome of many legislative races and convinced Gov. Perfect Hair that his political fortunes rest with them.
Using an updated form of Boss Tweed-style political intimidation, the guards' union is so feared that few Republicans or Democrats are willing to seriously challenge them. This explains their bloated salaries-they will soon make more than California university professors-their padded staffing and needlessly soaring overtime as California faces down a $28 billion budget deficit.
Although one nervous lobbyist (they are all nervous when speaking of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association) told me the union "loves to manipulate statistics on prisoner recidivism in California, making California look like the third- or fourth-worst in the U.S. The fact is we are the worst. More of our ex-cons go back to prison than in any other state."
Actually, it's the Department of Corrections that obscures the facts-the union merely capitalizes on it. According to the private Criminal Justice Institute, California tracks its prisoners for only two years while almost all other states track prisoners for three to five years, some much longer.
Prison officials stop tracking the parolees after two years in order to make California's ex-cons look as if they're not returning to prison. One California corrections expert, afraid to give his name, explains the Criminal Justice Institute report: "Even with only two years of tracking, 58 percent of California parolees are back in prison while most states with three to five years of tracking have 10 to 20 percent of parolees back in prison. Nobody's a disaster like California."
And why is this so?
Largely because we have the most troubling prison guard organization in the nation, throwbacks who use methods of prisoner control and punishment so backward that a Del Norte County Superior Court judge found it unconstitutional.
In December, Judge Robert Weir said California guards must stop locking down segregated cell blocks of prisoners after small groups of Latinos or blacks get into a fight in the prison yard or in the laundry room.
As lawyers for Pelican Bay State prisoners showed, "the guards were using the mass lockdowns which last weeks or months to repress" well-behaved and even model prisoners, even in far-off sectors of the prison. The guards were out to make the prisoners stir-crazy-their special little reminder that it's still another era inside California's prisons.
So you don't give a flying fig about how we treat prisoners? Fine. But don't believe for a moment that we law-abiding citizens outside have escaped the suffering caused by the actions of our fossilized, idiotic California prison guards.
The thousands of parolees released onto streets in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose every year commit crimes upon the rest of us at a rate higher than ex-cons almost anywhere. That's a big reason why California has the worst prisoner recidivism in the nation.
You can thank the prison guards' union, because unlike weaker prison guard unions in most states, our all-powerful union has fought most prison reforms that could have given these felons and drug addicts the training and tools to get a fresh start on the outside.
Geoff Segal, a policy director at the Reason Public Policy Institute, who has consulted with officials in five states on budget problems and prison issues, says, "They are the strongest guard union in the country by far, and one that has no shame in that what they do is solely for themselves regardless of cost to society or others. The Bureau of State Audits says Corrections is the worst department in California-the worst run, with the sweetest contracts, their job requirements are the softest and their abuse of rules and overtime is the grossest."
But in Sacramento, one is not permitted to openly criticize the guards.
Oh, heavens no.
The most tragic example of this is former state Sen. Richard Polanco. The guards are "credited"-if that upbeat word can be used-with bringing down Polanco, who, while controversial, was also the most heroic critic against them.
Polanco vociferously fought the guards' efforts to keep their incompetent clutches on every prison program and fought Davis' huge raises for the guards. Polanco understood that private correctional programs bring to California far more competent and cheaper groups who can provide prisoners with skills for the real world-the worst possible news for knuckle-dragging guards whose greatest fear is a reduction in the California prison population.
Former Sen. Polanco once told me the guards "are bad business, in every sense of that word, and people don't realize the danger we have created by letting them run Sacramento." These days, Polanco cannot be reached for comment.
Polanco was driven from politics after the media in 2001 received anonymous mailings of a birth certificate proving Polanco had a "love child" with a former staffer. The mailing went out just as Polanco launched his campaign for Los Angeles City Council, but was never linked to any source. At the very same time, reports surfaced that Polanco settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with another staffer from an alleged 1996 incident. The two pieces of news caused Polanco to abandon his City Council race.
Neither piece of news was traced to the guard union. However, in May 2002 the Los Angeles Times openly called Polanco, "the target of a campaign by the [prison guard] union last year to deny him a seat on the Los Angeles City Council."
Republicans also quake in fear of the guards. In an "object lesson," the guards' union poured $260,000 into a race for conservative high desert candidate Sharon Runner to oust equally conservative longtime pol Phil Wyman, who supported private prison programs.
Says my nervous lobbyist acquaintance, "The message to Republicans from the guards was, "We will spend whatever amount of money is necessary against those who disagree with us, and we are in control.'"
Both sides quietly submit to the prison guards. Republican Assembly minority leader Dave Cox and Republican Senate minority leader Jim Brulte went to Hawaii with the prison guard union in December, right after the budget disaster's scope was announced by Gray Davis, as did Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson.
Purportedly there to attend the prison guard union's conference on political issues and leadership, the widely criticized Hawaiian junket was really a psychological display of pure fear.
"Fear is my analysis," says Reason Foundation's Segal. "They were literally afraid not to show up in Hawaii."
Of the leadership, only Senate President John Burton had the guts to turn down the prison guards' invite to Hawaii, but Burton buckled to the union some days ago, reappointing retired prison guard union leader Don Novey to a cushy $100,000-a-year post on a state commission.
And look how Gray Davis displays his fear. He proposes cutting the funding for rubber sheets for the elderly who pee in their beds, and ending state funding for diabetic testing kits for the low-income, yet he's trying to sneak in $50 million in extra money for the Department of Corrections.
This, even though our prison population has tapered off due to the drop in crime and voter-approved drug treatment diversion programs. For shame, Gov. Davis.
Last year, amidst the budget crisis, Davis and the Legislature ignored Polanco and gave the guards an outrageous, utterly unearned 34 percent, five-year raise with extra vacation, shorter hours and retirement at 50 with nearly full pay. (Some weeks later, the guards handed Davis the biggest check he has ever received from a campaign contributor, for $251,000.)
Sickening, isn't it?
Only California pays uneducated guards $55,000 and lavishes overtime on 5,000 guards who make more than their bosses' $60,000 to $70,000 salaries. Last year, an audit found 80 prison guards stuck taxpayers for more than $100,000.
"It would make you sick to see the $50,000 cars pealing out of San Quentin Prison after the shift change," says my lobbyist source.
The vast majority of states pay lower salaries than California, in keeping with the low skill levels of prison guards everywhere. Yet guards elsewhere have been forced to help prepare prisoners for the outside world. Not in California, where a despicable movement is underway to reclassify non-troublesome, low- and medium-security prisoners as problem prisoners needing hgh-security cells, all to justify more prison guard overtime and the opening of the redundant, costly Delano II maximum-security prison.
As we watch Davis and the Legislature cower before the prison guards amidst this round of budget slashes, I predict that in a few years we are likely to have a huge, system-wide guard scandal on our hands.
Because that's what happens when one group is allowed to pervert the roots of the democratic process and nobody is watching them.