Strong Arm of the Law
A small union of California prison guards wields enormous political power
By Pamela A. Maclean
Printed in California Lawyer, November 2002
In June 1998 a campaign broadside hit the doorsteps of hundreds of
voters in rural Kings County that called for the ouster of incumbent
District Attorney Greg Strickland. The flyers implied that if the
inmates at the county's Corcoran State Prison could vote, they would
reelect Strickland. The full-color attack piece, circulated days before
the election, was sponsored by the 29,000-member California
Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state's prison guard union.
The union had given Strickland's opponent nearly $30,000-a huge sum in a county with just 136,000 residents. The nearly 17,600 inmates at Corcoran's two facilities and nearby Avenal State Prison can't vote, but the 4,173 prison employees do. Strickland was defeated, and he says in retrospect that his opponent's mailer was "devastating." Now a Fresno County deputy district attorney, he says that he "truly wants to forget the past" and refuses to discuss the Kings County election.
Strickland, one of two DAs targeted by the CCPOA in 1998, had earned the union's wrath by investigating allegations of officer misconduct at Corcoran. In 1995 he had prosecuted officers involved in the so-called Calipatria bus incident, in which some 30 guards greeted 36 inmates by allegedly choking, punching, and beating the shackled men when they got off the bus from Calipatria State Prison. Strickland was also assisting state and federal investigators looking into charges that officers had set up a prisoner for rape by an inmate known as the Booty Bandit. That case was frustrated, Strickland told a state Senate hearing on Corcoran in July 1998, because "of all the correctional officers refusing to talk." He concluded by claiming that the union had "become a political action committee."
Indeed, California's prison guard union is a strange political animal.
Founded in 1957, it has grown from an old boy's club to the state's
largest campaign contributor in 2001-beating out the California
Teachers Association and Philip Morris Cos. According to a March 2002 analysis by California Common Cause, the union is the largest financial backer of Gov. Gray Davis, the biggest contributor to state Senate speaker John Burton (D-San Francisco) in the 1999-2000 election cycle, and the largest contributor to 23 other state lawmakers. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice claims the union pours 34 percent of its $20 million in annual dues into four political action committees (PACs), and two other affiliated PACs (the union says it spends 10 percent).
The union bankrolls a crime victims' group in Sacramento, and it has joined forces with three of the state's largest Indian gaming tribes to create the Native Americans & Peace Officers Independent Expenditure Committee, located at CCPOA's union headquarters in West Sacramento.
The CCPOA enjoys a unique advantage in local elections: Because many of
the state's 33 prisons are located in rural counties, union money and
organization has an impact far greater than its membership would
indicate. Prior to the March 2002 primaries, for instance, the union
donated from $2,500 to $15,000 to candidates in six district attorney
contests. Some $15,000 went to the DA of Lassen County-home to High
Desert State Prison-and $40,000 went to fend off the June 2001 proposed
recall of the DA in Marin County, where San Quentin is located.
"Today's DA is tomorrow's state senator," says Lance Corcoran, CCPOA's executive vice president. "We get our name out there."
The union has also donated thousands of dollars to elect judges in Lassen County, Fresno County (Pleasant Valley State Prison), and Madera County (Central California Women's Facility). As of September the CCPOA has also reported contributions to 25 local candidates for district attorney, sheriff, judge, city council, and county supervisor for the November 2002 elections. If the chapters ask for money for an election, Corcoran says, "We try to accommodate everybody."
By July the CCPOA's Local PAC had spent $111,000, with another $118,000
at its disposal. The union even supplies its own candidates in some
elections, supporting the candidacy of chapter president Kelly
Breshears in 2001 for city council in Blythe (located between Ironwood State Prison and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison) and correctional officer Gary Grimm-a former Blythe councilmember-for the local school board. Breshears lost; Grimm won.
The new strategy is largely the work of Don Novey, the union's longtime president. Novey, a second-generation prison guard, walked the line at Folsom State Prison for nine years before being elected union president in 1980. During his 22 years in office, Novey transformed the CCPOA into an intimidating political force. "Their presence in state politics is so pervasive that everyone accepts that that's the way it is," says an aide to one state senator. "If you screw them, they make life miserable."
In late July, Novey announced his retirement, saying it's time for fishing, golf, and grandchildren. But union vice president Corcoran says Novey is expected to remain active in the union's PACs. "He's going to keep his hand in the business," Corcoran says. (Novey did not respond to interview requests or to written questions.)
In its rapid rise to power, the CCPOA has advanced its interests and protected its gains with a militant stance toward critics inside as well as outside the prison bureaucracy. Few state or local politicians are willing to oppose its wishes. As a result, the CCPOA is capable of setting the agenda on a range of public-safety issues, influencing district attorney and judicial campaigns, calling the shots when new prison wardens are selected, and frustrating efforts at prison reform. Not since Jimmy Hoffa's rule of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has a trade union so effectively used money, brains, and political muscle to wield power.
The CCPOA's influence grew alongside California's phenomenal prison
construction boom. From 1985 to 1995 the number of state prisons
increased from 13 to 31 and currently house 160,000 inmates in the
largest state system in the country. As the number of prisons
increased, so did the California Department of Corrections' (CDC) annual operating budget-from $923 million in fiscal year 1985 to $3.4 billion in 1995. Today it is $4.8 billion. From 1985 to 1995 the number of prison guards increased from 7,570 to approximately 25,000. Wages, benefits, and working conditions for officers improved remarkably: In 1980 the average annual salary was $14,400; by 1996 it had grown to $44,000; today it is $54,000.
In the early 1990s Novey made a series of tactical decisions that
reinvented the union. His first move, in 1991, was to establish a
coalition with the families of crime victims. CCPOA money helped create
two groups: the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, a legislative watchdog
group originally led by the mother of Manson family murder victim
Sharon Tate; and Crime Victims United of California, a campaign
financing arm led by the parents of murder victim Catina Rose Salarno. "Don Novey was the godfather of the victims' rights movement," says Michael Salarno, Catina's father. "Without his financial and emotional support, we could never have done this."
"We are a natural fit with victims' rights groups," says Lance
Corcoran. "Crime victims were forgotten for many years, and we feel we're a forgotten entity. There are eight assaults [on correctional officers] a day in prison. We are victims too."
By 1993 the union was turning to other issues as well. It helped
spearhead a successful campaign for longer prison terms for some
convicted felons. According to news reports, it contributed $101,000 to
put Prop. 184, the three-strikes initiative, on the November 1994
ballot. That measure passed by more than 70 percent of the vote and fed
the boom in prison construction by lengthening inmate sentences. But
Corcoran disputes the notion that his union is motivated only by self-
interest. "We diversify," he says. "We support Special Olympics and the
Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The CCPOA is moving to [crime]
The increased prison population, however, contributed to conditions at
some facilities that led to increasing claims of inmate abuse. In 1994
the Legislature concluded that the CDC bureaucracy itself required
independent oversight. It created an Office of the Inspector General to
investigate and audit operations at the state's youth and adult
For some inmates, the reform came too late. Following several years of class action litigation, U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco declared in January 1995 that Pelican Bay State Prison was the site of "a pattern of needless and officially sanctioned brutality" against inmates. Madrid v Gomez (ND Cal) 889 F Supp 1146, 1255. Lawyers brought to light a statewide policy that allowed officers to use lethal force to break up fights between inmates. According to testimony in Madrid, from 1989 to 1994 officers in California's state prisons shot and killed more than 30 inmates. By contrast, in all other state and federal prisons nationally only 6 inmates were killed in the same period-and 5 of those were shot while attempting to escape. Henderson appointed a special master to help develop and implement a remedial plan that addresses constitutional violations at the facility.
The Madrid ruling prompted the CDC to issue emergency regulations
prohibiting guards from using firearms to break up fistfights. It also
encouraged the district attorney in Del Norte County to pursue
prosecutions of Pelican Bay officers. (See sidebar, "Payback at Pelican Bay," p. 28.) Meanwhile, hundreds of miles south, state and federal investigations were under way at Corcoran State Prison, another
maximum- security facility where inmate fights had been broken up with lethal force.
The union responded with a new offensive. In March 1996 it formed a PAC dedicated to local electoral campaigns. The fund was created "so that chapters could get involved in the process," according to Corcoran. "DAs were not prosecuting inmate crimes [against officers]," he says. "If you turn a blind eye, at some point it gives the green light to inmates to assault us."
The investigations at Corcoran State Prison eventually led to the federal indictment of eight officers for allegedly staging "blood sport" fights between inmates that occurred in the security housing unit in 1994. Before the trial, the CCPOA financed an infomercial in 1999 about the tough working conditions at Corcoran. Thomas E. Quinn, a private investigator in Fresno who produced a documentary video showing some of the fights, says the union's infomercial showed "prison guards as neighbors, and prisoners as the scum of the earth." Broadcast by local television stations prior to jury selection, the ad concluded with the tag line "Corcoran officers: They walk the toughest beat in the state."
Although prosecutors expressed concern about the ads to the trial
judge, they didn't attempt to stop the broad-casts. The jury eventually
acquitted the eight guards of all charges. Immediately after the
verdict, some jurors joined the defendants for an impromptu
Despite the success of Local PAC, the CCPOA's main focus is still on Sacramento. The union became a kingmaker in the 1998 governor's race when it threw its support to Democratic candidate Gray Davis rather than to his Republican opponent, former Attorney General Dan Lungren. It pumped $2.3 million into Davis's campaign, placed television spots for Davis in the conservative Central Valley, and helped fund a bank of telephone callers before the election. With his election Davis became an ardent supporter of the union.
Since taking office Davis has received $712,000 directly from the union and another $356,000 generated at golf fund-raisers sponsored by the CCPOA. In January 2002 Davis signed a five-year labor agreement with the union that could increase annual salaries to $73,000 and, according to the CDC, cost the state $300 million a year by mid-2005. In March the union gave Davis's reelection campaign $251,000. The governor's proposed budget, released shortly afterward, fulfilled a 1998 campaign promise to the union by ending California's experiment with private prisons-typically low-wage, nonunion operations anathema to the CCPOA. Davis's budget proposal included plans to close five of the nine private prisons in California and phase out the rest as their operating contracts expire. CCPOA has showered nearly $800,000 on Davis for his current campaign. "You've got to admire Novey," concludes a Fresno- based criminal law attorney who asked not to be identified. "The same way you'd admire Boss Tweed."
By the late 1990s the CCPOA had become an established power broker,
confident enough to publish an enemies list on a poster that
proclaimed, "Felons Aren't the Only Bad Guys You're Up Against." On the list were state Senators Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose), both critics of alleged officer brutality and mismanagement at Corcoran and other prisons. Polanco has also supported the construction of private prisons in the state.
"The CCPOA wields way too much power," says Polanco, chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations. "I think they engage in setting what [state corrections] policy is going to be. They made examples of DAs in Kings County and Del Norte County, and they took out a DA who was willing to implement justice."
Polanco's Del Norte County reference is to former District Attorney William Cornell, who resigned after the CCPOA opposed him in a 1998 reelection campaign that Cornell had won. Today, Cornell says the union's involvement in DA and judicial races can lead to conflicts of interest if guards are ever called as witnesses or become targets of an investigation. "The CCPOA donating to election campaigns of judges is ripe for conflict, to the extent that it should be barred," Cornell says. Union vice president Corcoran responds, "We have no problem providing financial support to DAs or judges. I don't think that clouds their judgment."
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer was also featured on the CCPOA
enemies list. In February 1999 Lockyer endorsed legislation to create a
special unit for prison investigations within his office, effectively
reversing measures passed in the 1980s that restricted the authority of
DAs to transfer prosecution of crimes committed in prisons to the state
attorney general (Pen C ß4703). But the provision for transferring
prosecutions to the state AG was struck from the bill, SB 451. "The
CCPOA torpedoed this thing," Lockyer told the Los Angeles Times in
August 2000. Eventually Lockyer managed to establish a system in which
complaints against officers not acted on by district attorneys are
referred to his office. But local DAs still have the main
responsibility for prosecuting crimes at prison facilities.
According to the anonymous criminal law attorney in Fresno, the CCPOA spends far more time urging DAs to prosecute assaults by inmates than defending allegations against officers. This lawyer claims the union pressures DAs to bring felony charges against inmates "for every nickel-and-dime dispute"-which permits officers to threaten a third- strike conviction as a tool for controlling behavior. "Scuffles where nobody gets hurt- things that should be handled administratively-the union wants them pressed as a felony," the lawyer says. "You read between the lines, and you see the guard pushed the guy [the inmate] to act."
Corcoran responds, "We have a clause in the contract that requires
every staff assault to be reported to the district attorney." He adds,
"Every institution has individually negotiated criteria on what
constitutes an assault. Just because we put on a badge does not mean [staff assaults] should not be prosecuted."
A good part of the CCPOA's extraordinary success is a consequence of its staunch support from management-the CDC and prison administrators. "The bottom line is that thousands of men and women are in prison against their will-and that takes force," says Claude "Butch" Finn, warden at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy. "It takes correctional officers, and every prison warden appreciates it. We have a good working relationship because it is a partnership with officers on the line."
That partnership gives the union the ability, at least, to affect the selection of prison wardens. "It doesn't surprise me [if] they can block appointments," Polanco says. "More and more you are seeing wardens who want the job employing whatever strategy they need."
Corcoran responds, "I wish to God we had veto power. It is very hard to take out a warden." He scoffs at the suggestion that the union screens out candidates for warden that it doesn't like. "We don't have that kind of communication with the governor," Corcoran says. "It's not like we've got the Batphone in his office."
For all the CCPOA's abilities on offense, it also plays very good defense. Would-be investigators of officer misconduct quickly encounter the union's full-time staff of 23 attorneys-assisted by 15 paralegals, clerks, and secretaries. "Just because we are in corrections, people think the Constitution doesn't apply to us," Corcoran says. "Convicts get counsel, and so do we."
Corcoran says it's important for union members to be represented by counsel because prison guards, according to the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (Govt C ßß3300 et seq.), can be forced to testify during administrative inquiries under a very limited grant of immunity. "If someone is truly guilty of something bad, they are going to resign or lie," Corcoran says.
With counsel or union stewards sitting in, the CCPOA learns who is
targeted by investigators, what questions are asked, and most
important, what answers are provided. Under such circumstances,
whistle-blowing against a fellow officer is imprudent at best. Three guards who testified in the Corcoran State Prison case, for instance, found themselves without careers, and one, in addition, faced
Union members are protected by counsel in CDC disciplinary matters. Part of the problem, according to critics of the discipline system, is a lack of will on the part of the bureaucracy. For instance, Inspector General Stephen W. White, a former Sacramento County district attorney, issued a scathing report in March 2002 that found the CDC had blown the one-year statute of limitations for disciplinary action in more than 40 percent of the cases sampled. Although White promised to keep pushing the CDC to make improvements, his office has no authority to order changes.
Even if the CDC were more thorough in its investigation of officer
misconduct, it would have to overcome the membership's last line of
defense-a widely accepted code of silence. In the Madrid case, Judge
Henderson referred to the "undeniable presence of a 'code of silence'
... designed to encourage prison employees to remain silent regarding
the improper behavior of their fellow employees, particularly where
excessive force has been alleged." 889 F Supp at 1157. Novey, asked in
the 1998 state Senate hearings if he would say such a code existed,
replied, "I wouldn't totally say that.... But I will attest that there
are pockets [of the code], and our job's to help weed out those
A correctional officer currently working in a state prison says the brotherhood among guards is so strong because they depend on each other in life-and-death situations. "If the word gets out that you will rat out a coworker-whether it's true or not-you're simply not trusted," he says. "It doesn't matter where you go in the system. How long can you stand people [other guards] spitting on the ground every time you walk by?"
Novey's retirement this year comes at a time when the CCPOA seems
particularly bulletproof. The union's chief irritants in the
Legislature-Senators Polanco and Vasconcellos-will be termed out of office in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Federal prosecutors have ended their investigations at Pelican Bay after securing just three
convictions, one of which was reversed and is awaiting retrial. The U.S. Attorney's office came up empty at Corcoran. That leaves oversight of the state's 33 prisons to the CDC, the Pelican Bay special master, Inspector General White, and, to a limited extent, the attorney
Ironically, the most successful prosecutions of officer misconduct have occurred in civil actions brought by other officers. In June 1999 whistle-blower Richard Caruso, a Corcoran officer, won a $1.7 million settlement for stress and alleged forced retirement after he came forward about other Corcoran officers. Caruso v State (ED Cal) Civ No. CV96-2023. In December 2001 San Francisco attorney John H. Scott sued the state for negligence on behalf of Curtis Landa, a former officer at Ironwood State Prison. Landa v Cal. Dep't of Corrections, (Sacramento County Sup Ct) Civ No. 01AS07629. Landa broke the code of silence by reporting a September 2000 hazing incident during which Sargeant Jesse Lara and another officer allegedly bound Landa in tape, wrote "Lara's bitch" on his arm and forehead, and poured two buckets of water on him. Two other officers are accused of blocking Landa's escape and taking photos of him. After Landa reported the incident, he was stabbed in the back and chest and left for dead by two men in black uniform pants worn in the style of the prison's elite cell-extraction team. Since filing the suit, Landa has moved his family from the area and taken a desk job.
"We have represented a few of the folks allegedly involved [in the hazing incident]," Corcoran says. "We are in a position where we don't have the luxury of judgment-we provide representation."
Some of the civil suits allege discrimination against the newest
members of the union, women correctional officers. Sacramento attorneys
Robin Perkins and Christopher Wohl have won more than $1.1 million in
three sexual harassment suits brought by female guards against their
male counterparts at High Desert State Prison and California
Correctional Center. The latest settlement, reached in August on behalf of Officer Terri Sanchez for $400,000, came after U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb ordered Governor Davis to appear in court or authorize a representative to settle the case. Sanchez v Cal. Dep't of
Corrections (ED Cal) Civ No. 00-CV-1232. Corcoran says the union has an extensive training program to prevent sexual harassment of officers on the job. If a charge is sustained against a union member, he says, "it could bring censure or removal from office." But attorney Wohl says that since the latest settlement, the phones have been ringing with calls from female correctional officers with stories to tell.