The silent war inside

The 1960s and ‘70s were turbulent times for our country. Crime rates were on the rise and many states began waging “wars on crime”.

“Tough on Crime” campaign commercial for Richard Nixon, 1968, who many argue was the father of our nationwide political “war on crime” (View on YouTube)

Yet we’re quick to forget, as police officers and parole agents got tougher, the streets may have gotten safer, but the war didn’t end. Instead, it continued silently, in small rooms behind locked gates, waged by underappreciated prison staffers and desensitized inmates, 98 percent of which will return to our neighborhoods.

This article is about the impact of that war in California.

In 1977, California’s tough on crime tactics helped usher forth the passing of the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act, sparking a massive rise in inmate populations. This rise enabled the growth of a dark, and arguably far deadlier, enemy than those police fought on the streets; prison gangs.

“The gang culture entered the institutions and they started to take over the operation,” said Ron Hayes, former Deputy Director of the California Youth Authority’s Prevention and Community Corrections branch. “Then it was time for the officers to get tough on the gangs, and so the gangs started to get tough on the correctional officers.”1

Violence in California prisons, 1975-2004 (click to enlarge)

Violence in California prisons, 1975-2004 (click to enlarge)

The gangs’ growth (and the growth of the inmate population in general) coupled with the impact of the Dills Act, which formalized collective bargaining for government employees, shifted a tremendous amount of power into the hands of the correctional officer union; the California Correctional Peace Officer Association (CCPOA).

“As the prisoner population went up up up,” said an anonymous source retired from the headquarters of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), “the coffers of CCPOA went sky high.”

According to this source, CCPOA’s massive treasure chest was used most adroitly by the politically savvy of union president, Don Novey. His leadership, while working with CDC Director Dan McCarthy, was responsible for significant upgrades in training, professionalism and pay for correctional practitioners.

Yet, a by-product of the union’s wealth and savvy expenditures was that it became a major unchecked political power whose donations were coveted by republicans and democrats alike, be it in the legislature or Governor’s office.

Thus throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, CCPOA and the prison gangs grew simultaneously, as if locked in some kind of arms race. This race was fueled, on the gang’s side, by rising inmate populations and, on CCPOA’s side, by increasing political clout and investment.

“There are two sets of regulations in prison,” Hayes said, “the state’s rules and the gangs’ rules. If an inmate violates the state’s regulations, he goes into the hole. If he violates the gangs’ regulations, he’s dead. That let’s you know what he is going to pay attention to the most.”

“The reaction to this has been that (the gangs) have to be controlled,” Hayes said. “What do inmates do on the outside? They play cops and robbers. They go out and rob and the cops come and get them. Well, that same phenomenon goes on in the prisons… Correctional staffers spend the majority of their time investigating inmate offenses in the prison. So they’ve got to look like cops, and they do. They’ve got cop uniforms now and all the stuff cops have and they are constantly pulling investigations within their institutions.”

“That’s part of their new culture,” said Robert Doran, ex-Deputy Director of CDC: “’We’re getting tough (on inmates), man. That’s the enemy and this is dangerous. Don’t you understand?’

“CCPOA came to influence more of the day-to-day prison operations,” said the above anonymous source, “as politicians both in and outside the department abdicated responsibility, gave away management rights and controls, and restricted Wardens’ authority.”

“Management and the union started to see this as a war,” Doran said, “not just with the inmates, but with each other.”

“Well, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he added. “If you want a war, you’ve got a war. But guess, what? Nobody wins.”

1The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewees. However, since I published this piece a handful of California correctional professionals have reached out to say they don’t completely agree with some of the statements made. Namely, they don’t agree that the gangs carried quite such a level of influence over the evolution of the prison system. I mention this to remind the reader that corrections is a complicated business. Many factors are always at work and even those who know CDCR best often disagree in their analysis of just what exactly is happening behind our prisons’ walls.
Posted on by Luke Whyte |

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