The State Worker: Correctional officers see gift in Jerry Brown's prison plan

jortiz@sacbee.comJanuary 10, 2013 

That faint cheer you may have heard Tuesday came from California's correctional officers' union when Gov. Jerry Brown said he wants to end prison privatization.

The governor recommitted this week to bring the prisoners home at the same time he's asking federal judges to butt out of the state's prison business. The system's chronic overcrowding and poor inmate medical care, he said, are fixed.

"I applaud the governor's move to bring this back to the forefront," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "If we're going to have people incarcerated, wouldn't those California tax dollars be better spent in California?"

Everyone expects pushback from the bench. While the administration deeply cut the inmate census, it won't get to the court- ordered 110,000 prisoners by this summer – and that's before adding 8,900 or so out-of-state convicts phased back into the system.

Still, Brown's promise to ax private prison contracts illustrates how relations with CCPOA have changed.

The 30,000-member union has always opposed privatizing. It has backed building more state-run facilities and adding staff. It's a simple calculation: More state prisoners, more prison officers.

Owing to tougher sentencing laws backed by CCPOA, California's penal system at one point ran at double its designed capacity with beds stacked in prison gyms and open spaces. It went on a prison-guard hiring binge. Overtime ran rampant.

"We were in a real bind," said Mike Genest, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance director, and outsourcing "was a cost-effective solution."

And a loss for the union.

Other hits followed: A CCPOA lawsuit to overturn the policy failed. The union fought with Schwarzenegger and went five years without a contract. It's appealing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in 2010 that has tied up its money.

When Brown won his comeback run for governor with CCPOA's considerable support, the union's years in the political wilderness ended. It got a new contract and, significantly, didn't oppose Brown's plan to send more convicts to local jails even though it cost member jobs. CCPOA even went along with new staffing rules that give the state flexibility and cut overtime.

So if the state brought back those 8,900 inmates it would cost $10,000 per inmate per year, according to administration estimates, with no big OT costs. Private prison contracts run about $25,000 per inmate.

But state prison savings have never driven federal rulings. The judges this time will certainly view the invitation to leave as a question of whether the penal system remains overcrowded, and they've already said it is.

Brown has launched seemingly quixotic campaigns before and won, but this time he's battling in the courts, not at the ballot box.

CCPOA will be cheering him on, nonetheless.

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