The State Worker

Shorter California prison officer academy to start next month

A guard tower overlooks the wall at San Quentin State Prison.
A guard tower overlooks the wall at San Quentin State Prison. The Sacramento Bee

California’s state prison-officer academy will shorten from 16 weeks to 12 weeks starting late next month, four years after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and California’s correctional officer union began talking about abbreviated cadet training.

Not that long ago, such a change would have been unthinkable for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, but the agreement was made more palatable through negotiations that also re-established a commission to oversee training standards for correctional officers.

CCPOA under founding President Don Novey, for years fought for a 16-week academy as part of an agenda to elevate the professionalism and safety of front-line prison staff. Part of the calculus was money: The more training and expertise required for the job, the stronger the argument for higher compensation.

So the union was well-positioned in the 1980s when lock-’em-up laws in California sparked a boom in prison construction and a demand for officers to staff those facilities. By the early 2000s, the confluence of politics and policy made California’s prison officers among the highest-paid in the nation.

Today, California state correctional officers earn from $3,172 per month at entry level to $6,644 per month for the most senior employees. The figures do not include officers’ overtime, which has climbed as the state has run short of staff.

Over the last several years, however, court orders to cut the state’s prison population and a shift to incarcerating more offenders in local jails reduced the number of inmates in state prisons. The state also shut down its cadet academy in Galt, effectively choking off the pipeline of new employees to replace hundreds who retired each month. Overtime among prison officers soared.

Now the correctional system needs to hire 7,000 officers within the next three years, said department spokesman Bill Sessa, to reverse the impact of staff attrition.

CCPOA and the Brown administration agreed to the new 12-week academy, which “will combine some classes and cut a few others,” Sessa said. The new schedule starts with the July 27 class and will allow Corrections to graduate up to 264 more cadets each year than the current maximum of 792 per year.

“We essentially get an extra graduating class out of each fiscal year,” Sessa said.

Some CCPOA members will undoubtedly object to the shorter course as demotion of their already-maligned profession. When the state hired private-prison officers in 2013 and ran them through an abbreviated training regimen, the PacoVilla corrections blog chided the policy for hiring “WALLmart cops” via a “flash academy.”

The union agreed to the shorter academy in exchange for reviving and reconstituting the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which lost funding during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration.

The new six-member board will be comprised of three seats appointed by the governor and three rank-and-file seats. Before the board went dormant, the department appointed three members and the governor appointed three – essentially making the panel an extension of the executive branch.

Lawmakers debated adding a seventh seat appointed by the Legislature, but shelved the idea when department and union officials said it would kill the agreement they had hammered out.

Here’s video footage from that Senate budget subcommittee hearing, featuring Chairwoman Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley; CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan and CCPOA lobbyist Craig Brown. Move the video-viewer slider to the 18:55 mark to pick up the discussion.

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