A power struggle over prisons

Times Staff Writer

sacramento -- When a sunflower grew 5 feet tall along a fence on the grounds of state prison in Lancaster, correctional officers took note of the plant life thriving amid the desolation. They filed a grievance against the state, complaining that the flower violated their contract.

The stalk, which the union contended obscured a yard gunner’s view, was one of a dozen problems the guards protested at Lancaster within two days in early August; others included broken lights, cracked windows, missing bricks and potholes.

Such floods of grievances are among many hardball tactics, says the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that the guards use to intimidate wardens and exert undue influence on a state prison system riven by crisis.


Now the governor is trying to take back some of that power, which was ceded to the politically formidable union in a contract awarded by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 and renegotiated three years ago by the current administration.

After a 16-month stalemate in an increasingly bitter contract dispute, state officials last week took the provocative step of declaring that they would unilaterally impose their “last, best and final offer,” attempting to recoup what in most cases amounts to basic powers to run prisons as they see fit.

Over the union’s threats to retaliate, the state would reclaim the right to question officers about such nuts-and-bolts items as sick leave and to decide how many guards -- and which ones -- should staff certain posts. Prison authorities also could make changes in operations that the union has blocked, such as determining when inmates visit medical clinics. And the state would vastly restrict the guards’ use of grievances.

In response, the union, which holds $4.5 million in political action committees, has filed a complaint with California’s Public Employment Relations Board saying the state is acting improperly.

“They are imposing a lot of things that are illegal, that they can’t impose without a change in the law,” said Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

The conflict signifies the degree to which California prisons threaten to blot Schwarzenegger’s legacy in the waning years of his governorship.


On his watch, federal courts have appointed a receiver to oversee prison healthcare and are weighing whether to intervene again with an inmate cap -- or even a possible prisoner release -- to relieve pressure on the teeming lockups. Hundreds of inmates die each year, and in many cases there have been allegations of abuse or neglect.

The union is a major roadblock for Schwarzenegger and his aides as they attempt to surmount the crisis, corrections officials say.

“I need some of my management rights back,” James Tilton, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview. “I’ve said, ‘I’m responsible for running the department.’ My goals are to make sure we make decisions as necessary, and that’s what we intend to do.”

David Gilb, director of the state’s Department of Personnel Administration, which negotiates labor contracts, said corrections officers have so much power that the public believes they “run the prisons, and we can’t blow our nose without getting the union’s permission.”

In addition to regaining some basic control, the state would give guards an annual 5% raise over three years, subject to approval by state lawmakers, who nearly approved an unconditional 10% salary hike for guards in the final hour of the most recent legislative session. The contract covers the union’s more than 30,000 members, including guards, parole agents and other corrections department employees.

Some lawmakers disagree with Schwarzenegger’s new approach. Unlike the governor, who does not take the union’s contributions and can’t run for reelection because of term limits, many legislators have taken union money and other support and may need it in the future. Overall, the union has spent more than $10 million on political candidates and causes since 2000, campaign filings show.


Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), former chairwoman of the upper house’s prisons committee, said Schwarzenegger was using the group as a scapegoat for his administration’s failure to fix the corrections system.

“It becomes sort of the perennial excuse,” said Romero, who has taken about $10,000 in contributions from the guards’ union since 2001.

The union, meanwhile, is considering suing the state on grounds of violation of state and federal labor laws, Sherman said, and might stop waiving state requirements that they be given meal time and breaks so that the state would have to compensate them. Union members might also stop overlooking the time they spend putting on and taking off their uniforms and insist on being paid for it.

“You might want to consider tracking all of your time at work each and every day,” union president Mike Jimenez advised his members in an online message earlier this month. He promised to fight back as “this administration seeks to do everything in its power to strip us of every hard-fought worker protection, pay and benefit we have secured over the years.”

The state’s new stance, several officials said, partly reflects the administration’s desire to persuade a panel led by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson not to cap the state’s overcrowded system.

Henderson, who last year appointed the receiver for inmate medical care, threatened to take over the entire system in a 2004 letter to state officials. Henderson criticized the Schwarzenegger and Davis administrations for allowing the guards to dictate contract terms and seizing too much sway over prison operations.


The agreement “clearly has resulted in an unfair and unworkable tilt toward union influence,” the judge wrote.

In the union’s last contract, the state bargained away the ability to question guards about sick leave. Since then, sick leave has boomed, in part because guards are working forced overtime to compensate for thousands of vacant positions.

Now state officials want to regain the right to investigate and curb sick-leave abuse. They also want to eliminate the counting of sick leave toward overtime.

Davis’ administration agreed to make any local agreement in a prison part of the master contract, essentially giving the union the power to veto some corrections officials’ plans. In April of last year, for instance, corrections officials notified the union that it intended to take inmates to a surgical center at an area hospital five days a week instead of one. But four years earlier, the prisons and the union had arranged to use the clinic only on Tuesdays, and union officials stopped the state from changing the schedule.

Now, the state says it will still consult the union, but it won’t be deterred from taking action.

The union has 550 open arbitration cases based on grievances. The state says it will restrict grievances to items related to the contract and streamline the process. State officials also want the union to agree not to use complaints to “harass, intimidate or interfere” with management. They would freeze the entire process if the union filed what prison officials consider frivolous grievances, such as the one about the sunflower, which the state subsequently removed.


In other changes, prison officials would be able to choose which guards are posted to units that move prisoners and investigate gangs and crimes by inmates.

Now, correctional officers generally choose their own postings based on seniority.

Steve Fama, a staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, a Bay Area group that advocates for inmates and brought the lawsuit that led to the receiver appointment, said he would prefer the state also choose which guards staff mental health units, where inmates are more vulnerable.

“In contrast to the past, the state in the negotiations is acting more like the management of the prisons is an important goal,” Fama said. “On the other hand . . . they’re pretty mild steps. There’s nothing in there that is truly radical.”

But Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, said that for a politician to take on the union would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when Davis was the guards’ principal political patron and the union was among his principal financial supporters.

“For the governor to be saying, ‘Hey, here’s my offer, this is it,’ and to be fighting very visibly with the prison guards, is a big turnaround,” Cain said. “Part of it, I think, is that the prison guards really did overreach. . . . And people realize that the prison system is not in good shape and there are some fundamental structural problems.”