…Yet whether prisons are public or private, preserving jobs generally means locking away as many people as possible for as long as possible—contrary to the goal of reducing mass incarceration. California’s prison guards union, for example, was one of the primary sponsors of the proposition that brought about Three Strikes in the 1990s. In the aughts, the union opposed parole reform and vigorously campaigned to defeat politicians it regarded as soft on crime. It has also supported the death penalty, despite the staggering cost to state taxpayers.
All of this fueled the CCPOA’s rapid expansion: Membership more than sextupled between 1982 and 2011 (from roughly 5,000 to 31,000 members) and its annual budget ballooned from roughly $500,000 in the early ’80s to more than $23 million today. The earlier number was provided by Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota professor and author of The Toughest Beat. Page, who has written extensively about the state prison guards’ union, says the CCPOA seems to be softening some of its positions of late, but it remains a potent political force in California, which has America’s largest prison population. (The $23 million figure is a conservative calculation from the policy group California Common Sense; the CCPOA would not provide a current budget figure.)
As strapped states and localities look to their corrections budgets for savings, unions have fought proposed facility closures and the establishment of programs that would divert offenders into treatment and other lockup alternatives. They have frequently opposed reforms that could affect their members’ autonomy, including oversight programs designed to curb abuses by prison employees.