Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Balanced Look at Guard Compensation

Sara Mayeux of the Prison Law Blog posted a guest post on American Prospect about the Wall Street Journal story we recently covered. Some excerpts follow:

Do you know what "overtime" consists of when you are a prison guard? Hours and hours of your life! Spent inside a prison! Doing the soul-crushing labor of corraling other human beings! Instead of, you know, playing baseball with your kids, or whatever else you might want to be doing. Who wouldn't give up late-night doc review and expense-account dim sum for that? Quelle luxe!

Look, the solution to the high cost of prison staff is to put fewer men and women in prison. If, however, a state is going to put itself into the business of the custodial care of hundreds of thousands of men and women, then it's going to have to hire people to oversee them. And, you know what, it's going to have to pay them semi-decently, and it's also going to have to allow them vacation. So what if it's seven weeks of vacation? So what if they retire at 55? Considering what Philip Zimbardo taught us that being a prison guard does to a person after even a day or two, I wouldn't exactly call that a sweetheart deal.

It is, indeed, a problem that California legislators and voters have prioritized punitive criminal-justice policies at such great fiscal cost and, more importantly, at such great human cost. It is a problem that the political economy of California has rewarded the CCPOA so handsomely over the past 30 years for its advocacy of ever-more punitive sentencing laws. It is a problem that California has nearly 170,000 men and women in prison. The CCPOA did not c3reate those problems so much as it's astutely exploited the system that made those problems possible.

While Mayeux's critique of Finley's comparison is, of course, justified, I think she's cutting CCPOA a bit too much slack. Exploiting a problematic system is not a ticket out of responsibility; ask the many California unions who do not hold the state government hostage, and the many unions that do not have well-funded, deceptive puppet organizations supposedly advocating for victims. And while a system vulnerable to lobbying is not unique to prisons or to California, the war on crime (as opposed to the war on other social ills) has unique features and has had unique consequences as to the urban landscape and life choices of Californians.

I would like to hope that Finley's critique was not aimed at individual prison guards. As Luke Whyte from Voices of Justice reminded us recently, working in corrections is not a piece of cake. And while this calls for a strong union and good work conditions (as per the recently passed contracts), none of this absolves the organization from its cynical exploitation of victim voices to push the government toward solutions that push as further toward mass incarceration. I would like to hear more from CCPOA about their support of a sentencing commission and about community-based solutions. They have a substantial share in the responsibility we all have for the current system and they have the power to be an important player in fixing it.

1 comment:

Flora Victor said...

Thank you for clarifying the role of CCPOA in the California prison crisis. My son spent three years in prison and I met a lot of guards during that time. Individually they are like people anywhere, some kind and some abuse their power over inmates and visitors. However, we need to remember that CCPOA is directly responsible for creating and sustaining the dangerous and difficult situations which both guards and prisoners endure, with their deliberate use of their political power to block much needed prison and other criminal justice reforms.