The California Prison Guards' Union
A Potent Political Interest Group
by Dan Pens, March 1995
from a book
The Celling of America
edited by Daniel Burton-Rose
with editors of Prison Legal News
Dan Pens and Paul Wright
Common Courage Press, 1998
There is a well fed Political Interest Group feasting at the
California public trough, and most taxpayers are unaware of the
huge growth in this creature's appetite and political clout. It
has grown from a political runt to one of the biggest hogs in
the barnyard in an incredibly short span of time. This group has
swelled with such swiftness and cunning that most California taxpayers
would not even recognize its name, much less realize how much
of an impact it is having on their pocketbooks and on the state's
economy. The group I'm speaking of is the California Correctional
Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA).
In 1980 there were 22,500 prisoners in California. The average
salary for California prison guards was $14,400 a year. The state
budget for corrections was $300 million per year. In the past,
California schools and universities were the envy of the world.
The state's economy was strong, bolstered by huge numbers of defense
jobs. CCPOA was a politically minuscule organization vying for
attention among the giants of fat defense contractors.
By 1996 there were more than l40,000 prisoners in California.
The average salary for California prison guards is $44,000 per
year (well over $50,000 with benefits)-$ l 0,000 more than the
average teacher's salary. Prison guards require only a high school
education and a six week training course. Most teaching jobs require
at least an undergraduate degree in education. In 1993 California
spent a greater portion of its state budget on prisons than it
did for education for the first time (compared to as recently
as fiscal year 1983/84 when California spent 3.9 percent of its
budget on its prison system, and 10 percent on higher education).
The state corrections budget in 1994 was $3 billion. The demise
of the Cold War meant the decline of defense jobs. According to
the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament,
a non-profit Washington D.C. group, there has been a decline of
over 750,000 defense related jobs in the last five years alone-most
of them in California. But as the military-industrial complex
is waning in California, the prison-industrial complex is mushrooming.
In this way California's wealth now comes not only from perpetuating
the misery of millions of people around the world, but also from
the rigidly enforced misery of thousands of its own citizens.
Between 1984 and 1994 California added a whopping 25,900 prison
employees, substantially more than were added to all other state
departments combined (16,000). By one estimate, hiring for prisons
has accounted for 45 percent of the growth in all California jobs
in that ten year period.
The CCPOA's rise to political power can be traced to 1980,
when Don Novey became the group's president. Novey is the son
of a prison guard. He graduated from American River College and
served in Army Intelligence in the late '60s. Before becoming
the head of the union, he worked as a prison guard in Folsom.
Prior to Novey's ascendancy, the union had been a pitifully
weak organization, with a membership divided between the California
State Employees' Association and the California Correctional Officers'
Association. In all it had only about 5,600 members. But when
Novey took over its leadership, the union combined Youth Authority
supervisors and parole officers with prison guards, and with the
acceleration of prison building, the CCPOA membership has swelled
to 23,000 members.
Recognizing not only the political importance of lobbying
but the power of public relations, Novey began spending about
half a million dollars on PR and on honing a public image for
himself: that of the self-depreciating, fedora-wearing, blue collar
labor leader. But it is in the arena of political lobbying, rather
than PR, that Novey has shown true genius.
The CCPOA collects nearly $8 million a year in dues, and it
expends twice as much in political contributions as the California
Teachers Association, although it is only one-tenth the size.
The union is now second in the state only to the California Medical
Association in political contributions. But in reality it is the
most powerful and influential lobbying group in the state, as
there are no vested interests against spending more on prisons.
Don Novey has shaped the CCPOA into a potent political force.
Candidates for governor have genuflected at Novey's feet in hopes
of gaining the endorsement and deep pocket largess of his association,
and have submitted to grilling by the union leadership to see
if they were worthy. Jack Meola, the CCPOA's executive vice president,
says their questioning of candidates is intense. "Our primary
goal is to protect the public," he says in his smooth PR
banter to the press, "to keep thugs off the street and in
jail where they belong." To fail the test, Novey maintains,
could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Diane Feinstein
found that out in 1990 when Novey's union gave almost $1 million
to enthrone law enforcement's friend, Pete Wilson, in the California
And, of course, the union not only wields the political stick,
it also dispenses the carrot, and not just to Pete Wilson. Novey
and his union contributed $76,000 to the 1992 re-election campaign
of David Elder, the chair of the state assembly's Committee on
Public Employment and Security-the very same committee that rules
directly on the pay and benefits of prison guards. And they received
value for their political contribution dollar. Prison guards got
raises six months ahead of other state government employees. Their
average salary of $44,000 per year is 58 percent above the national
average for prison guards. And they now boast one of the best
pension plans of any state employee. In addition to excellent
medical coverage, they receive 75 percent of their salary at the
time of retirement, which can be 55 after 30 years' service, and
they get a 2 percent yearly increase after two years of retirement.
To ward off the critics, Novey's PR machine drums up the theme
that prison guards patrol "the toughest beat in the state."
But that simply is not the case. Over the past three decades 13
prison guards have been killed throughout the state, compared
with 63 officers in the LAPD-an organization with half the members
of the CCPOA's 14,000 who serve as guards. (The rest of the 23,O00
CCPOA members work in parole or as Youth Authority supervisors.)
The slick PR is aimed mainly at the public. State politicians
don't need to hear any propaganda to toe the CCPOA line. They
know that one false step could result in Novey pulling a "Vasconcellos"
on them. That is, the CCPOA richly endowing the campaign coffers
of their opponent, as Novey's union did to John Vasconcellos,
the chair of the state assembly's Ways and Means Committee and
an opponent of the prison building boom. Although it was generally
conceded that Vasconcellos' seat was among the more secure in
the assembly, the CCPOA still laid more than $75,000 in the lap
of Vasconcellos' 1992 opponent, just to let him know that it did
not appreciate him signing the ballot argument against the prison
bond initiative in 1990, or questioning the fat contracts being
awarded to prison guards at a time when the state was in the most
dire fiscal straits since the Great Depression. Vasconcellos was
re-elected in 1992 with a substantial majority, but a clear, sharp
message had been sent to the self-described "progressive"
who has labored long and hard for a more thoughtful approach to
crime and incarceration, as well to any other state politicians
who might entertain the thought of publicly opposing prison-building
legislation or criticize the guards' union.
The crowning glory of the CCPOA's political action campaign
is without a doubt the passage of Proposition 184, the "Three
Strikes" Initiative. The CCPOA contributed $101,000 to get
Prop 184 on the ballot. The CCPOA donation was clearly a key factor
in getting the initiative on the ballot and on getting it passed.
Even though the legislature had already been cowed into passing
virtually identical legislation, the fact that it was passed by
voter initiative ensures that the legislature cannot easily modify
this "Prison Guard Full Employment Act." CCPOA member
Lt. Kevin Peters summed up the membership's position on "Three
Strikes" when he said:
You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the
upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are
opportunities for the people who are [already] correction staff,
and opportunities for the general public to become correctional
officers. We've gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and
with 'Three Strikes' and the overcrowding we're going to experience
with that, we're going to need to build at least three prisons
a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions
will take approximately 1,000 employees.
But Lt. Peters, like the CCPOA as a whole, can see no farther
than the end of the snout he has buried in the public trough.
Though the public has been hoodwinked by a crime-fear hysteria
fueled by the media-and capitalized on by both political parties
to gain the attention and affection of voters-critics are beginning
to voice their doubt and concern over the direction these misguided
policies are taking California. The once Golden State, whose public
education system was the envy of the world, now ranks in the bottom
10 nationally in spending from kindergarten through high school.
There are almost no meaningful drug rehabilitation programs in
California, and almost no housing for the homeless; hospital emergency
rooms are closing all over the state; libraries in L.A. County
are closed on weekends, and many are open only two days a week;
kids in some of the poorest neighborhoods have no place to go
after school; and California now spends more on prisons than it
does on colleges and universities. It is in a climate such as
this that jack-booted reactionaries are able to sound the Nazi-like
alarm that immigrants are the cause of the state's budget woes
and the reason there are not enough jobs, schooling, medical and
social services to go around.
Many corporations have fled California because of increased
state taxes, and taken their jobs with them. Although the decrease
in industrial jobs has been partly offset by increases in corrections
jobs, it doesn't take a genius to see that this trend doesn't
make for a viable economic strategy. As more and more working
wage jobs are eliminated, the unemployed and the poor will have
fewer and fewer economic opportunities. The state budget for health,
education and social services will continue to be bled by the
prison expansion programs.
According to James Gomez, California's former Director of
Corrections, it will cost $40 billion to build the 21 new prisons
required to house the surge in prisoners that "Three Strikes"
(and similar "get tough" laws) will generate, and an
additional $5.5 billion a year to run them. A RAND Corporation
study predicts the corrections budget will double, growing from
9 percent of all state expenditures to 18 percent. It also predicts
that prosecution costs will soar. "To support implementation
of the law, total spending for higher education and other government
services would have to fall by more than 40 percent over the next
eight years," the RAND report concludes. The CCPOA is spearheading
a political and economic strategy that will lead California into
But perhaps this is the only direction that may lead to eventual
social and economic justice. The prospects for evolutionary shifts
to the left grow dimmer and dimmer. Perhaps it is only after the
state drives itself into an abyss that a radical revolutionary
shift can take place. That remains to be seen.