When Prison Guards Go Soft

Even California’s powerful prison guards’ union thinks more prisons are a bad idea.

“Five years ago, I had a lock on things,” says Mike Jimenez, the president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. With his sunglasses, slicked-back hair, and trimmed beard, the 47-year-old looks more like an aging rock guitarist than the head of the nation’s largest prison guards’ union.

“Then I got questions with my own life,” he continues. “I have a 19-year-old son. He was having interventions with law enforcement. Drug related. And I watched how the criminal system treated him. It’s assembly-line justice. I was totally taken aback by it.” He’s since started to question the efficacy of locking thousands of low-level offenders up “in an institution where they become worse”—the very institution he and his fellow union members helped build.

Jimenez’s change of heart has been reflected in the fates of the organization he heads. Five years ago, the ccpoa also had a lock on things. A top donor to Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, it was one of the most powerful labor organizations in California. In the 1990s, its tough-on-crime stances were routinely converted into legislation that ensured full prisons and new jobs, and made the guards the nation’s best-paid corrections officers. Candidates who crossed the ccpoa often saw their political careers derailed by attack ads sponsored by the union.

Today, however, the ccpoa is at a crossroads. From the start of his term, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has treated the guards as a special interest group standing in the way of reform and has blamed them for many of the woes facing the state’s bloated prisons. And in a radical departure from years past, when the guards routinely received generous pay boosts even in lean years, at press time, the union and the state were fighting over a wage increase.

As the ccpoa‘s relationship with its former allies has deteriorated, it has adopted some positions it once would have derided as dangerously liberal. Last year, it released a policy paper that called for rolling back some mandatory minimum sentencing, restoring judges’ discretion over sentencing, and giving correctional officials more input in setting parole dates. It also advocated spending more on sick and mentally ill inmates, as well as reentry facilities for parolees.

Most surprisingly, the ccpoa has come out against Schwarzenegger’s multibillion-dollar prison expansion plan, arguing it will lead to even more dangerous working conditions for its members. Jimenez told a state prison commission that he fears outnumbered guards will be overwhelmed by overcrowded prisoners. “We are sitting on the edge of what nasa calls catastrophic failure,” he concluded. ccpoa has even filed an amicus brief in favor of an attempt by the Prison Law Office, a prisoners’ legal rights group, to cap the state’s prison population.

Critics say the union’s new ideas are window dressing, a byproduct of its three-year showdown with Schwarzenegger. That may be partly true. But something extraordinary is happening inside the union, particularly behind the scenes. In 2002, the thuggish head of the ccpoa, Don Novey, was replaced by Mike Jimenez, who’d worked his way up the ranks since he’d become a guard in the 1980s after doing low-paying work in the oil fields. Jimenez, a Republican, came to the job with a more reformist agenda. And he has since been further radicalized by the events unfolding within his own family.

Jimenez speaks frankly about how his teenage son, Joshua, got into drugs, went to a boot camp in Utah (“it cost me every penny I made for six months”), was charged with a string of low-end felonies, dropped out of high school, and told his father he had nothing to look forward to in life.

1 in every 9 African American men between 20 and 34 is behind bars

1 in every 9 African American men between 20 and 34 is behind bars.

“I spent a lot of money, got him attorneys, went to great lengths to make sure he met the terms of his probation,” recalls Jimenez. “But it occurred to me there’re a lot of Joshuas who don’t even know their dads. They get involved with the criminal justice system. It’s a terrible reality. I realized there are a lot of kids in there who shouldn’t be.”

The realization completely changed the way Jimenez saw his job. “We plan to fail,” he says of current correctional policies. “You can put all the police officers you want on the street, but if we don’t give those kids hope of a future, of a life, of an ability to make something of themselves, they don’t care about life. Nobody’s willing to forgive anymore. And we are willing to lock people up for unreasonable periods of time.”

Jimenez’s revelation has trickled down the ccpoa hierarchy. Even Lance Corcoran, a longtime union leader known as a hardliner, now comes off like a bleeding heart. “I’m not saying I’m sympathetic to people who go to prison,” he says, a little cautiously. “But I’m empathetic. I don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily.”

Corcoran says the union has been talking with prison-reform organizations, and the two sides have found some common ground that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. As he explains, “Safer places for their loved ones to live in mean safer places for our members to work.”

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