News a ‘Punch in the Face’ for Guards
Bad news travels fast at Lancaster state prison. On Wednesday, the talk among guards was the unexpected word that state Senate Democrats may block their upcoming 11.3% pay raise.
“We here are hard-working people,” said Ronnie Credle, 58, a 15-year correctional officer. “And they’re trying to condemn us.”
At issue is a five-year labor contract for the state’s 31,000 correctional officers. On Tuesday, Democratic state senators -- ignoring years of unwavering support for the guards union -- announced that they have the votes to block a raise scheduled for July 1.
To eight-year Officer Jack Reiss, 61, it’s about keeping promises. If the state reneges on the contract, he said, “then any contract in California isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. I’ve always been raised that if you give your word, you bite the bullet and do what you said.”
From prisons such as the maximum-security facility in Lancaster, 60 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, to the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. union headquarters in Sacramento, the reaction was angry and pugnacious.
“This is an unsolicited, bag over the head, punch in the face,” said Lance Corcoran, the union’s executive vice president. “Our members are frankly disgusted.”
On a union website, President Mike Jimenez warned that he and other leaders were willing to play tough -- in court and through job actions -- if lawmakers deny the hike. “If you back us into a corner, you better believe we’re going to come out swinging,” he said.
Democrats announced Tuesday that 17 senators would fight the raise -- expected to cost about $250 million -- because California is in a fiscal crisis and cannot afford it.
Without those 17, the union would fail to have the two-thirds vote it needs for the increase to be reaffirmed in the Senate.
The five-year contract was approved in 2002, but because the state cannot commit to increase spending for more than one year at a time, two-thirds of the Legislature must approve every new raise.
“The Department of Corrections is an out-of-control spending machine,” said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who led the effort in the Senate. “It’s time to return to the bargaining table.”
State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), a longtime union supporter, said Wednesday he did not endorse unilaterally canceling the contract.
“If contracts are mutually agreed to, and then if you reopen them, in theory that ought to be mutual too. If they agree to open theirs that’s fine. If they are coerced into opening theirs, it’s a bad practice,” he said.
“The correctional guards are an easy target just like MPs would be after what happened in Iraq. I find it difficult to blame a union for getting increased benefits and working conditions for their members when that’s their job. If the deal was too sweet and too far-reaching, the blame should lie with the administration that gave it to them.”
The unusual standoff is being encouraged by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who since last fall had been pushing the union to renegotiate the contract, so far without success.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, called the senators’ move “an act of political bravery,” noting that the lawmakers were “angering a [campaign] funding source that has been very bountiful.”
That said, Cain noted that legislators had the governor standing behind them and predicted they would also find support in the court of public opinion.
“I’ve felt for a long time that this contract was one of the great scandals of California politics,” Cain said. “Everybody is making sacrifices this year, and in the public sector, a deal is never a deal. Every agreement is contingent on the political and economic circumstances. And if you play in this arena, you understand that.”
Jimenez and other leaders said they had been willing to talk about concessions, but now feel double-crossed by legislators. They noted that all but one lawmaker had either voted for the contract or abstained in the 2002 vote.
“I think the tactics and direction they’ve taken are really damaging the process,” he said. “In the end, I think they’ll be disappointed and it won’t bear fruit.”
While most of their ire was directed at legislators, union leaders also have launched an attack on one of their own -- Roderick Q. Hickman, a former guard who is now Schwarzenegger’s secretary for youth and adult corrections.
On Wednesday, union officials sent legislators a flier depicting Hickman’s smiling face on a milk carton under the word “Missing.” The text reads:
“Last seen running for cover after promising to clean up the mess at CDC, leaving line officers and department personnel to twist in the wind. Often found hiding under his desk in classic duck-and-cover fetal position.”
Passed out along with the flier was a so-called “Rodney Buck,” a mock dollar bill that ridicules a Hickman program urging prison employees to help close the budget deficit by trying to save a “dollar a day” in their workplace. The fake dollars bear Hickman’s picture, the words “The Embarrassed State of California,” and the phony signature of Speier.
Corcoran said the materials, which were also handed out to passersby in downtown Sacramento, reflect union members’ belief that Hickman has failed to stand up for officers through a series of prison scandals and oversight hearings in the Legislature.
“All Rod has done so far is apologize for the men and women of corrections rather than talk about the challenges we face and the thousands of men and women who provide safety and service to California,” Corcoran said. “It’s extremely demoralizing to the troops.”
A spokesman for Hickman said he was meeting with staff at prisons and parole offices in Southern California, and had not seen the flier.
At the Lancaster prison, rank-and-file guards feel the pay increase is well-deserved, said union chapter official Rocky Stroud. “They were shocked. They were angry. They were appalled.... It’s such a letdown to these guys.”
There was a sense of betrayal that was compounded, officers said, by a feeling that their work never receives the same respect as other public safety occupations. It has become a convenient scapegoat for lawmakers, given recent allegations of inmate abuse, financial mismanagement and a “code of silence” among some employees in the nation’s largest state prison system, they said.
“It’s like Iraq -- they say we have a ‘prison scandal’ out there, but we’ve got a lot of guys out there busting their [behinds],” said Officer Michael Audette, who was taking a break while prisoners went through a lunchtime head count. “They say there’s a ‘prison scandal’ in California, but it’s just a few bad guys.”
Throughout the 4,400-inmate Lancaster lockup Wednesday, corrections officers said it was a shame that lawmakers didn’t understand the value of watching over some of the state’s most brutal felons.
Set on the barren Mojave Desert floor, the prison employs 697 guards. Last year, employees were attacked by prisoners 83 times. This year, there have been 10 assaults.
“There’s no limit, really, to what you could really see in here,” said Officer Robert Yslava, 40.
Yslava said he became a guard last year after his stepfather, now a retired guard, described the lucrative promises in the 2002 labor contract.
With the raises in mind, Yslava purchased a house in the Inland Empire and had his first child while he was in the four-month officers’ academy.
“Now, we come to find out it’s all up in the air,” he said. “They only thing we can do is take it day by day.”
Inmate Vernon Gibson said he hadn’t heard about the controversy. But when asked if the guards deserved a raise, the 51-year-old lifer paused thoughtfully.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I wouldn’t do their job for all the money in the world.”
Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report.