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Photo by Kassi ShepardFour years ago, the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) quashed a state investigation into abuses at Corcoran State Prison. Among other things, guards allegedly staged gladiator fights between rival gangmembers and forced particularly bothersome inmates to spend the night with the infamous "Booty Bandit"—a prisoner who had a special penchant for anal rape.
Despite such behavior, the CCPOA has been ranked as California's second-most powerful lobbying group (behind oil companies) and biggest campaign contributor to Governor Gray Davis. But that powerful position hasn't been enough to erase the bad reputation nationally for Corcoran State Prison, which is not accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), the prison-industry group that has provided its seal of approval to hundreds of U.S. prisons and jails, even a couple of Puerto Rican pokeys.
No worries: California's prison guards don't want ACA accreditation. According to CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran—no relation to the prison—the ACA is "lowering the standards of the profession."
To drive home the point, Corcoran and about 100 other off-duty California prison guards and members of CCPOA protested Aug. 3 outside the ACA's 132nd annual Congress of Correction at the Anaheim Convention Center. They marched in solemn circles for several hours in the bright sun, while, inside the mostly empty convention center, display booths were being set up for that afternoon's convention traffic of wardens, prison industry officials, private vendors and contractors.
Lest anyone think that the squabble between CCPOA and ACA is as shallow or self-serving as the one currently brewing between Major League Baseball players and owners, Corcoran asserted that their squabble is over such basic ideas as killing people.
"First of all, ACA is in opposition to the death penalty," Corcoran explained. "When we had a moratorium on the death penalty in California, we had 11 cops murdered during that period."
As I tried to count in my head how many cops have been murdered since the state's death penalty was reinstated in 1976—and reconcile CCPOA's pro-execution stand with the recent Field Poll results showing 73 percent of Californians favor a death-penalty moratorium—Corcoran moved on to his group's main beef: ACA's push to privatize prisons.
"Contrary to the image of the CCPOA that has been painted in the media, we don't see prisoners as a commodity," Corcoran said. "Inside a California prison, the badge worn by the guards should represent the people of California, not some private entity, like Disney's Prison World."
Brian Dawe, a former prison guard from Massachusetts, explained why he supports CCPOA's campaign against the ACA. Dawe, the executive director of Corrections USA, said his Wyoming-based nonprofit organization represents 98,000 prison guards in 40 states—far more than the 21,000 individual members claimed by ACA.
He jabbed an accusatory finger toward the Convention Center. "The ACA is for prison privatization and for selling out public safety to the lowest bidder," he said. "Look at the vendors in there! It's like a K-Mart special!"
As Dawe spoke, an amused-looking man leaving the Convention Center asked Corcoran about his sign, which claimed that Charles Manson supports the ACA.
"Why wouldn't the ACA be supported by Manson?" Corcoran responded. "They oppose the death penalty. We try to bring out issues that are important to people, and nobody deserves the death penalty more than Charlie Manson."
Continuing his anti-ACA rant, Dawe claimed that compared to public prisons, privately run facilities have a 60 percent higher rate of inmate-vs.-inmate assaults and a 49 percent higher rate of inmate attacks on prison guards. He added that ACA had no guidelines on psychological treatment for prison guards. "The men and women getting whacked in there are your neighbors, not the heads of some corporation."
Sure, these days, everyone supports whacking heads of corporations, but as for prison privatization, Dawe says he has challenged ACA officials to debate the issue, and they've refused.
"I've been in close contact with them," he said. "I told them, 'We want to debate you in public!'" Then, with a forceful smack of his clenched fist against his outstretched palm, he added, "'Let's put it all on the table and see what you're all about!'"
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