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The Big House That Don Novey Built : WORKING THE PR, SPREADING BIG BUCKS, A CANNY UNION BOSS DEMANDS MORE PRISONS AND TOP PAY FOR HIS GUARDS

<i> John Hurst is a Times staff writer. His last article for the magazine was "Why I Own a Gun," profiling Southern Californians who own firearms</i>

John Denning is carrying an assault rifle again. He hadn’t planned to. After serving as a combat Marine in Vietnam, Denning had hoped to make a living carrying nothing more lethal than a blackboard pointer. To that end, he earned an elementary-school teaching credential at Cal State Chico.

But an interesting thing happened on his way to a classroom job: Denning learned that he could make a lot more money guarding the state’s prisoners than he could teaching California’s children. And unlike the available teaching position, the prison job would be full time.

So the tall, easygoing Denning holds a 9-millimeter Heckler and Koch rifle as he scans a bank of prison cells arrayed in a semicircle before his control booth. He is on duty at Mule Creek State Prison in Northern California’s Gold Country, one of 15 new penitentiaries opened in the past decade to house the state’s mushrooming convict population.

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After five years in uniform, Denning was earning $14,000 a year more than he would have as a teacher in Chico. And he could have saved himself the time, trouble and expense of a college education. California prison guards need only a high school diploma to qualify for a job that starts at $27,432 per year, jumps to $36,768 after two years and tops out at $44,676 after six years, approximately what a CHP traffic officer makes after a similar period.

“It was good when I started, but it’s much better now,” Denning says. Good salaries and other benefits for state prison guards did not simply drop out of the sky. They are the result of the shrewd leadership of one of their own--a former guard--and a multibillion-dollar prison construction program that created a growing demand for guards.

Don Novey, the 46-year-old president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is known for his hard-nosed bargaining, tough-guy demeanor, belief in professionalism and a flair for PR. Novey wears a fedora, talks basic law and order and cultivates a bombastic Jimmy Hoffa image. But in interviews, the mustached, pink-cheeked union chief, a fifth-generation Californian, is soft-spoken and cautious about what he says. Novey doesn’t possess high-voltage academic credentials--he has an associate of arts degree from American River College in Sacramento--but he is intelligent and erudite. Novey knows, for example, what Dostoevsky had to say about prison conditions, that they reflect society’s values. He is a family man, with a wife of 23 years and three children. He speaks Polish and German and is learning Spanish. His office radio is tuned to a classical-music station. And he has learned how to tune into California’s channels of power.

Novey has taken a small, listless public employees union and forged it into one of the most powerful political organizations in the state. He and the guards union pour millions of dollars into political campaign coffers. And, to the dismay of critics, they get results. For instance, the union helped put Republican Pete Wilson in the governor’s office in 1990, spending nearly $1 million. In 1992--the most recent year for which data is available--the union’s political action committee contributions to candidates were topped only by those from the powerhouse California Medical Assn. And the guards’ largess wasn’t restricted to Republicans that year. Its $60,000 contribution to the war chest of Democrat Willie Brown, the flamboyant and influential speaker of the Assembly, was the seventh-largest during his ’92 reelection race.

The $1 million total to political campaigns in 1992 was only slightly more than the $992,000 handed out to politicians by the California Teachers Union, according to California Common Cause, which advocates campaign finance reform. But the guards, outnumbered 10 to 1 by the teachers, know how to get a better bang for their buck.

Common Cause says that the correctional officers’ massive contributions have given them far too much power for a group of state employees. “They can exert this incredible influence to make sure they come out ahead in the salary game,” maintains executive director Ruth Holton. “Why should one group of state employees have so much more influence than others simply because they happen to give more?”

Adds Vince Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, an organization that advocates alternatives to prison: “Why should we have the best-paid correctional officer staff in the country and not the best-paid teachers, professors, health-care workers and social service staff? It just proves that when the (guards union) said, ‘Jump,’ the Legislature and the governor said, ‘How high?’ ”

Novey scoffs at such complaints, and needles the press for repeating them. “I’ve never seen the media attack the California Medical Assn., Arco, the California Trial Lawyers Assn. when they’re doing the big spend,” he says. “But once the little blue-collar worker gets up to the plate, everyone gets antsy.”

IT IS AN EERIE SCENE: SEVEN HUNDRED WHITE COFFINS, EACH BEARING A red rose, are arranged row upon row on the lush grass next to the Capitol building in Sacramento. Several dozen people are seated on folding chairs adjacent to the coffins. A color guard of uniformed officers from the California Youth Authority reformatory at Preston marches down an aisle through the chairs.

In front of the gathering are several speakers, including Atty. Gen. Daniel Lungren and, wearing the ever-present fedora, Don Novey. The audience is from an organization of crime victims’ families and the cardboard coffins represent California murder victims. This annual ceremony is sponsored by Novey’s California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. It is only coincidental that, at dawn that spring day, Robert Alton Harris was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, the state’s first execution in 25 years.

Lungren, a conservative law-and-order advocate, is subdued in his manner and remarks. He and Novey had been at the execution and look tired. But when Novey speaks, he is anything but subdued. He acknowledges that witnessing the execution was “difficult,” but hastens to add, “The only thing I felt sorry for is that we had an open chair and I damn well would have liked to see Charlie Manson sitting in it alongside Robert Harris.”

Then Novey describes Harris’ death as though it had been an electrocution. “Extra crispy” is his flip comment.

Novey knows that the folks in front of him are not in a reflective mood. He knows they have just had a taste of vengeance and that it is their day to exult. Novey knows his audience. After all, it was he who helped create groups like this with funds from his union. It is good public relations for the union to support victims-rights groups and to espouse their causes, Novey knows, because he realized early on that California’s prison guards could not ascend to real power on their numbers and dues alone. They also needed an image.

When Novey, fresh out of the Army, first walked through the medievally turreted East Gate of century-old Folsom Prison to work as a guard in 1971, he and his fellow officers were scorned by the public as lowly turnkeys. They didn’t have proper uniforms, much less a training academy. “We’d come in cold,” he recalls. “They’d hand you a set of keys and you were on your own.” At some prisons, the rate of guard turnover was higher than 40% every two years.

After nine years as a guard at Folsom, Novey was convinced he could change the status of correctional officers. “I saw a group of people who were trying to do something right, but they were running into each other,” he says of the union. “It just disturbed me.” So he got himself elected president and hasn’t lost a reelection yet.

At the time, recalls Novey, “It was just a good old boys club.” There were 2,000 members, the treasury held $25,000 and the organization operated out of a rented office. The top salary for guards was $21,000 a year.

Now there are 23,000 members in the union, including parole officers and medical technicians. Guard salaries have more than doubled since 1980, while monthly dues of $35 bring in around $9.5 million per year. Those funds were used to help build a $3-million Sacramento headquarters, a gleaming blue and white building with a large archway over the entrance and a grand staircase leading to Novey’s comfortable, but by no means plush, office.

There he works constantly to polish the guards’ image. It is a nasty business, going behind prison walls each day to keep others under lock and key. And it’s an ironic calling, since those who do it become imprisoned themselves. Guards suffer long periods of numbing boredom, broken by instances of terror. And even now they generally get only slightly more respect than those they watch. Sometimes less. Almost everyone else in the criminal justice system gets a share of glamour: cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges. In films, even convicts are depicted as colorful guys played by the likes of James Cagney and Clint Eastwood.

So Novey and his top staff spend about $500,000 a year on public relations. Union leaders insist that guards be called correctional officers. And Novey coined a slogan for their job: “the toughest beat in the state.” Union representatives hand out “Tough Teddy” stuffed bears to kids during goodwill visits to hospitals.

But, in fact, prison work is not the toughest beat in the state. A Los Angeles police officer, for example, is far more likely to be killed on the job than a prison guard. During the past 30 years, 13 prison guards were killed. During the same period, the Los Angeles Police Department--which is only about half the size of the prison guard force of 14,000-plus--lost 63 officers in the line of duty.

That’s the reality, but in the state Capitol, it’s often the image that counts. “Ask any legislator in Sacramento,” Novey says with a laugh. “They say, ‘Here they come, “The toughest beat in the state.” ’ " But a legislative aide who asked not to be identified disagrees. Prison guards want to consider themselves cops and be able to do cop-type things, like carry concealed weapons off-duty. “They’re big-time wanna-bes,” he says with a sneer.

Indeed, guard training is inferior to that of many police departments. The six-week paramilitary course that new guards must complete offers classes ranging from report writing to hostage survival. But its six-week duration pales in comparison to the 6 1/2 months required by the LAPD.

Nevertheless, the union’s track record under Novey has been remarkable. It helped establish a training academy in Northern California for guards and set up a lobbying office in Washington to push for national training standards for correctional officers. And benefits have certainly improved under Novey. Like most peace officers, for example, guards receive significantly better retirement benefits than other civil servants, such as better pensions at an earlier age.

NOVEY IS NOT HESITANT TO REWARD FRIENDS AND PUNISH ENEMIES IN the state Legislature in his pursuit of improving the welfare of his guards.

Dave Elder, former Democratic assemblyman from Long Beach, frequently carried legislation on behalf of the union, including a bill to improve retirement benefits. The guards showed their appreciation by giving him $114,000 in campaign contributions from 1987 to 1992.

At times, Novey’s method of building political influence is as subtle as the siren at Folsom Prison. Six years ago, for example, the union created a furor when it handed out personal gifts of $10,000 each to three politicians for their work in the state Legislature. One was Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations. Presley says he considered the money an overly generous speaking fee. Another beneficiary was then-Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas), who left her sickbed to vote in favor of locating a prison in Los Angeles. The third check went to then-Sen H.L. Richardson (R-Glendora), well-known for his support of police and gun owners.

Such personal gifts to state lawmakers have since been banned, but legal campaign contributions by the guards continue. The union gave more than $3 million to political campaigns in California from 1987 to 1992. And those who cross the guards can face retaliation.

Take John Vasconcellos. The veteran Democratic assemblyman from Santa Clara has liberal ideas on crime and punishment, but he did, nevertheless, receive $7,250 from the guards between 1987 and 1990. Then Vasconcellos co-authored the ballot argument against a $450-million prison construction bond issue in 1990. Voters rejected the bonds, and the guards, in return, bankrolled the campaign of Vasconcellos’ opponent, Tim Jeffries, in the Assembly race two years later. Vasconcellos won the election, but the union’s $81,000 donation to Jeffries made what should have been a walkover a closer contest.

“I think it contaminates the system,” Vasconcellos says of the union’s methods. “People who do that think they can muscle the system.”

The guards have indeed muscled the system into making prisons a sacred cow, contends Kim Alexander, former policy analyst for California Common Cause. “That kind of campaign funding has a chilling effect on the rest of the Legislature,” she says. The chill has frozen out any serious consideration by Sacramento lawmakers of alternatives to building more prisons, reformers insist.

“What you’ve got is a powerful interest group invested in the status quo,” a system built around prisons, says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice research organization based in San Francisco. “Change becomes difficult when every legislator is looking over their shoulder to see how this in-group is going to stand on their next election.”

Krisberg’s organization and others aren’t convinced that prisons are the answer. They advocate alternatives such as intensely supervised parole programs for violent offenders and no parole supervision for lesser offenders, community corrections facilities and revised sentencing guidelines. Krisberg also advocates privately run prisons, which have been used sparingly in the state and are militantly opposed by the guards union.

Novey responds, tongue in cheek, that guards, too, are interested in reforms such as shorter sentences to reduce the prison population: “We’ve advocated for shorter sentences for a heinous crime: murder. We want state executions for Murder 1.”

Not only the Legislature, but the governor, too, is chummy with Novey and the union leadership, critics say. Sometimes that relationship gets too close even for the union membership. Novey angered his rank and file as well as that of other state labor organizations in 1991 when he promised Gov. Wilson that his members would take a 5% pay cut. But Novey subsequently helped to drive a bargain with the Administration that allowed the guards to recoup wage reductions months before other civil servants who had taken a pay cut.

State Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose) contends that Wilson is so beholden to the guards that he insisted last year’s state budget contain increased funds for prison operations while all other departments suffered cuts. Alquist co-authored with Vasconcellos the 1990 ballot argument against prison bonds. Wilson responds that his decision to increase the prisons’ budget during the state’s financial crisis had nothing to do with the guards’ political clout. And he stuck to his guns in his January budget proposals for this coming fiscal year. He recommended a 10% boost in the prison budget, about $335 million, and the hiring of 3,215 new guards to handle an anticipated 7% increase in the inmate population. Wilson also proposed a $2-billion bond issue to build six new prisons, subject to voter approval on the June or November ballot this year. Filling out his anti-crime package, which critics say is spurred by his reelection bid this year, Wilson supports the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” proposal, which would mandate life sentences to some repeat offenders. His enthusiasm has overreached even some of his key GOP allies, who oppose adding to the state’s debt load. “We are unanimously opposed to any bonds for any reason,” insists Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno.

For his part, Novey argues that the guards union wants more prisons to relieve dangerous overcrowding, not to create more guard jobs.

“All we want is access and the ability to explain our position,” he says. “We’re not going to run out there and demand that you pass a bill.” He proclaims with a note of piety: “My goal in life--and we’ll never achieve it--is for this profession not to exist. It’s a sad reflection of our society that we have crime out there.”

WHEN DON NOVEY STARTED WORK AT FOLSOM 23 YEARS AGO, IT WAS AN era of bloody prison uprisings. Convicts like George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers made headlines and California’s prison system became notorious. “They were killing officers right and left,” Novey says of the inmates of that time.

New officers weren’t issued standard uniforms and, as a result, they stood out like the vulnerable green hands they were, he says. “It sort of identified you as fish bait to the inmates.” After a nine-month probation, guards were allowed to wear regular olive-colored uniforms, but the outfits didn’t include badges or state Department of Corrections arm patches, as they do now.

Novey’s ascendancy to chief of the guards’ union took place as California embarked on an unprecedented prison-building program. In 1982, there were 12 state prisons and 6,300 guards. Twelve years and more than $5 billion later, there are 27 state prisons in operation, one more scheduled to open this month and the number of guards has more than doubled, to 14,388.

The rapid expansion of the 1980s occurred because California had long neglected its penitentiary system and state legislators were knocking each other over to introduce laws increasing prison sentences. Budget-minded critics warned that the state could not afford to build enough prisons. Nevertheless, the construction continued unabated, though it remained well behind the sentencing curve. By the early to mid-1980s, the prison system was bulging at 155% of its design capacity. And still the number of inmates increased.

California’s prison system, once the model of progressive penology nationwide, had become a string of stinking dungeons, dangerous for guards and lethal for convicts. Incidents of armed assaults among inmates rose from 200 to more than 800 per year from 1978 to 1987. In 1987, 20 prisoners were killed by other inmates or by guards. Places like Deuel Vocational Institution in the little Central Valley town of Tracy became known as the Stabbing Capital of the World and the Gladiator School as gangbanger convicts carried on their outside wars inside the walls.

Conditions at San Quentin and Folsom were aptly described by observers as a riot in slow motion. Inmates lived--and still do live--two to a closet-sized cell and were kept “on lock-down"--confined to their cubicles nearly 24 hours per day--much of the time. Yet the members of the warring Mexican Mafia, Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood and Nuestra Familia managed to murder one another and attack their keepers.

In 1983, federal and Superior Court judges handed down decisions lambasting the state’s prisons, especially San Quentin, for overcrowding, rampant violence, filth, rodent infestation and plumbing that leaked so badly that correctional officials considered issuing chamber pots to the inmates. Who would voluntarily enter such a place?

Nola Hearney did in 1983, when she was 22. She had just graduated with a degree in psychology, full of idealism and desperately in need of a job. The Department of Corrections needed guards at San Quentin. “I said, ‘I’ll go to San Quentin,’ ” recalls Hearney, one of the state’s 2,300 women guards. “ ‘I’ve heard of that place.’ ”

Hearney is now an administrative assistant to the warden of Mule Creek State Prison. The new facility is a far cry from what Hearney encountered when she walked into San Quentin. “It was a foul place to work and the noise was deafening,” she says of the state’s oldest prison.

“It was a very intimidating environment,” she explains. “Every day was a struggle, initially. They (the inmates) were deeply, deeply mentally ill and violent. They defiled you without even knowing you. I believed when I started with the department that everyone was inherently good and that, with enough concern, that good could be brought forth. I was wrong.”

The first person Hearney ever saw die was an inmate who had been stabbed by another convict and lay on a cold San Quentin floor with his life oozing away. “And another inmate spit on him while he was dying,” she says. “I’d go home and cry. I thought, ‘Is this what humanity has come to?’ ”

People who are locked up for long periods of time become ingenious at making things out of very little. Add rage and hopelessness and the items produced can be lethal. Prison officials say that convicts make a crude gunpowder, for example, from ground-up match heads. Something as innocuous as a newspaper is turned into a deadly spear by rolling it into a long tube and fitting it with a piece of metal that has been smuggled out of a shop and filed to a razor’s edge.

A colleague of Hearney at San Quentin was jabbed in the eye with a prison-made spear. He survived. Another, Sgt. Howell Burchfield, was also speared. He died. The day before he was killed in 1985, Burchfield, a well-liked officer with an ironic sense of humor, had written in his diary: “I always wanted to be a cop or join the circus. Here I have both at San Quentin.”

Novey keeps that quotation on the wall of his union headquarters office. Burchfield was the last state prison guard to be killed on duty.

Department of Corrections statistics indicate that the state prison system is not as dangerous as it used to be despite the current record level of overcrowding, now pushing 185% of design capacity. The number of assaults on staff members, though still in the hundreds, peaked in 1984, according to the department.

Several theories are posed to explain the apparent reduction. For instance, court rulings in the 1980s forced the cleanup of San Quentin and Folsom as well as requiring more humane treatment of prisoners. Meanwhile, some of the more violent gang leaders are aging, their authority waning and their rage cooling. Get-tough-on-crime legislation also has diluted the violence quotient of the prison population by locking up an increasing number of less dangerous thieves and drug offenders. And as new prisons open, officials are able to isolate the most violent inmates in modern facilities and scrutinize their movements.

But even change is often controversial. For instance, a class-action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco charges that inmates at the futuristic Pelican Bay State Prison are subjected to brutality by guards and isolation so complete that convicts are driven mad. Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in December contending that Pelican Bay prisoners are hogtied and made to lap up their food as disciplinary measures. Correctional officials acknowledge that some unruly inmates were tied in restraints several years ago, but insist that the practice has stopped. They deny the other allegations.

NOT LONG AGO AT MULE CREEK, the model prison where John Denning worked until recently, a cellblock guard momentarily let his attention drift. A prisoner bolted across the day-room floor and, at full stride, smashed his fist into the side of the officer’s head, knocking him to the concrete floor. The guard now has a metal plate in his head.

Wary of such an occurrence, Denning, a six-year veteran, tries to tread a fine line with the inmates, staying alert without becoming mindlessly rigid. “These guys are my bread and butter,” he says. “I’m going to treat them with respect, give them what they’re entitled to under the law.”

But he knows they will try to manipulate him. “They’ll game you,” he says. “These inmates know us better than we know each other. They have nothing to do 24 hours a day but study us.” Yet, like many guards, Denning rarely reads case files on inmates. “I don’t want to know why they’re here,” he says. “You don’t want to dwell on it because it might play mind games with you.”

Denning, who has transferred to another prison, frequently worked in one of Mule Creek’s raised, glassed-in booths that are equipped with control panels enabling him to open cell doors without coming into contact with prisoners. Because he has access to a firearm, no one in the cellblock below, including other guards, was allowed to enter his booth. When Denning needed something sent up, he lowered a plastic jug on a rope, the item was placed in the jug and he hauled it back up. “We have a state-of-the-art facility,” he says with a smile.

But for the truly primitive, there is Folsom. In the oldest part of the penitentiary, which has been evolving cellblock by cellblock since 1880, correctional officer Dave Cruz takes sack lunches to the Latino prisoners who are on lock-down. They are confined because one of their number was stabbed and officials haven’t yet determined why. That is the way prisons operate: a Latino is stabbed, lock down the Latinos.

Cruz moves along the tiers and unlocks the cells so that inmates can open the solid steel plate doors that are set in ancient granite blocks. They reach out and pick up their lunches as the guard stands back and nudges the sacks toward them with his foot.

Cruz, 38, used to be in construction but became a guard eight years ago because he thought the law enforcement field was more stable than the building industry. He feels safer behind the walls of Folsom than he does on the street, but he has to remind himself to stay alert as he performs the monotonous task of passing out lunches.

“It’s kind of like driving,” he says. “Sometimes you get complacent. You don’t pay as much attention as you should. Maybe an inmate gets some bad news and he’ll take it out on the first person he meets. And it might be you.”

Outside, in a tiny exercise yard in a newer, but still antiquated part of the prison, Gregory Wilson--unarmed except for a nightstick and a whistle--stands among men whose arms and upper bodies are buffed out from pumping prison iron and whose bare torsos are covered with prison tattoos.

These men hold heavy metal weights in their hands and are within arm’s length of Wilson, but the 46-year-old guard does not seem overly concerned. If they want to get you, he says, they’ll get you, no matter where.

For Don Novey, it’s been six years since he walked the line as a guard at Folsom, but sitting in his safe and comfortable office, he still remembers the feeling.

“An officer on the line has got to survive on his wit and his whistle. It’s like living in a city of convicted felons. And,” the chief of the guards union hastens to add, “you should be duly rewarded for working the toughest beat.”


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