The State Worker

The State Worker: A sign of the times: California prison guards’ union embraces former enemies

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

Most beefs between law enforcement employers, unions and the rank-and-file fall into three areas: workplace safety, money and respect.

All three have coalesced in a brouhaha that recently erupted over an abbreviated correctional officer academy now running in eastern Kern County.

The story starts with a recent three-year, $28.5 million deal between Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Corporation of America to lease the private prison company’s California City facility near Edwards Air Force Base. The agreement will add space for nearly 2,400 convicts. Brown needs the space to comply with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding without releasing inmates.

A spinoff from that deal is allowing 80 former CCA guards to become full-fledged state correctional officers on Dec. 12 after six weeks of training, 10 weeks less than the state’s standard academy training in Galt.

Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the shorter training makes sense because the former CCA staff have custody experience.

“Upon completion of their training, they will have the same knowledge and skills as all newly hired CDCR correctional officers,” she said.

But for some current and retired officers, the special academy is an affront to their profession and gives preference to private guards who once took work away from state workers.

Retired correctional officer Jeff Doyle speaks for many current and former officers when he scoffs at the six-week “flash academy” on his widely followed, always-irreverent Paco Villa Corrections Blog.

“Should mall security guards be fast-tracked through ... a CHP academy?” Doyle recently wrote. “Of course not. The notion is absurd.”

State prison guards in the 1950s earned less than fish feeders at San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium. Later, CCPOA founder Don Novey had a serial epiphany: more training = more professionalism + safer workplace = respect = better pay. The union argued for higher training standards, including the 16-week academy. Last year, the median pay (including overtime) for CCPOA’s 27,019 members was $72,800, putting them among the highest-paid custody staff in the nation.

Not all that long ago, CCPOA would have joined Doyle in ridiculing special treatment for “WALLmart guards.” But these days, an average of 150 officers retire each month and take their union dues with them. The court order is bearing down. The CCPOA has an ally in Brown, whose administration said this week it will hire 7,000 officers over the next three years. And the union says it wants to hold down prison costs. So CCPOA OK’d the special academy.

“Ten or 15 years ago, Corrections wasn’t facing up to 1,800 staff vacancies or the potential release of 8,000 inmates,” said CCPOA spokesman JeVaughn Baker. “Ten or 15 ago we weren’t facing the same challenges.”