Prison Guards Union Backs Off on Talks Over Pay Concessions

Times Staff Writer

Reacting angrily to the Davis administration's closure of a women's prison in Stockton this week, California's powerful prison guards union said Friday the move had undermined state efforts to win salary concessions from correctional officers.

The union also criticized the decision of Gov. Gray Davis to move forward with a $220-million project to build a new death row at San Quentin State Prison, calling the plan "voodoo prison economics" that would exacerbate the state budget crisis. The union previously had supported the project, which guards and prison officials say is urgently needed because of security concerns at the antiquated facility for condemned prisoners.

"They've missed an opportunity to truly reduce costs," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "They've made it extremely difficult to pursue any sort of concessions. For us to come back to the table at this point, the price just got higher."

Facing a budget shortfall of $26 billion to $35 billion over the next 16 months, the Davis administration is trying to convince the prison guards and three public employee groups to accept $470 million in pay cuts and other savings.

The prison guards union had offered to begin negotiations over salary cuts, reductions in overtime pay and other cost-saving measures -- but only if the Department of Corrections shelved a plan to close the Northern California Women's Facility in Stockton.

Marty Morgenstern, the governor's chief labor negotiator, said preliminary talks with the union had been underway for weeks, but the decision to move ahead with the closure of the Stockton facility meant "the end of things, at least as they stand now. We're certainly always ready and eager to negotiate."

The prison guards union, one of California's leading contributors to political campaigns, negotiated a new contract with the Davis administration last year. The contract, approved nearly unanimously by the Legislature, will increase the pay of guards as much as 37% over the next five years, the state auditor says.

Corcoran carefully avoided direct criticism of Davis on Friday, saying, "I would be amazed if [the Corrections Department] shared this with the governor. This is bureaucracy at its finest."

Davis has been criticized for shielding the Department of Corrections from the billions of dollars in budget cuts he has recommended to the Legislature. A number of Democratic lawmakers are proposing cuts in the $5.2-billion prison budget proposed by Davis, a Democrat.

The union said it supports the construction of a new death row at San Quentin, but that the project should be postponed because of the state's economic crisis. "I absolutely agree that a new death row is needed for both officer and inmate safety," Corcoran said. "However, when we're facing a $35-billion deficit and Californians are being asked to make sacrifices, we believe it is irresponsible to be expending that type of money. The timing is indefensible."

Corrections Department spokesman Steve Green defended both the death row project and the closure of the Stockton facility. He noted that the nonpartisan legislative analyst has recommended closing the Stockton prison as a cost-savings measure because of the declining women's prison population in California.

But Corcoran said the closure of the women's prison would unnecessarily disrupt the lives of 200 staff members, including 130 correctional officers and supervisors, while not saving the state money.

But the larger implications of the dispute could be the impact on Davis administration attempts to renegotiate contracts with prison guards.

Noting that it "takes both parties" to reopen the contract, Corcoran said the union's offer of salary concessions -- in exchange for keeping the Stockton facility open -- "was basically thrown back in our face."

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