Prison union battles staff searches
May 15, 2011
Random staff searches that are part of an effort to curb the smuggling of cell phones into state prisons are drawing objections from the powerful union representing correctional officers. [CaliforniaWatch]
Union officials contend the monthly searches of all employees are overly intrusive and misguided. The two-year program dubbed Operation Disconnect was enacted after 10,000 cell phones were taken from prisoners last year.
Even though fewer than 500 cell phones have been confiscated under the program, some lawmakers still suspect prison employees are the main suppliers of cell phones that are reaching inmates in ever-larger numbers.
But Joe Baumann, a chapter president with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, told California Watch the modest results suggest the program is targeting the wrong people.
“Staff are just a small part of the problem,” Baumann said. “If an employee is dirty, word gets out pretty quickly.
“There are no boundaries as far as how invasive the searches are,” he added. “People have had to take off jumpsuits, pull off vests, pull up T-shirts. They’re setting themselves up for litigation with the way they’re doing this.”
California does not routinely search staff as they enter state prisons, unlike many other states and the federal government.
Some state officials have said they would like to impose airport-like security checks on staff at all state prisons.
But Baumann told California Watch such a move would require the state to renegotiate its contract with the union and would add to the time it takes correctional officers to get from their cars, or the prison gate, to their work stations. Union members are paid for this “walk time.” Added walk time could cost the state millions, according to some analysts.
While union officials are pushing for fewer searches, lawmakers are calling for new legislation that would toughen security and sanctions.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein appealed to the state Senate Appropriations Committee to revive a bill that would stiffen the penalties for smuggling cell phones into California prisons.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, is sponsoring legislation that would transfer oversight for searches of prison staff to the inspector general’s office “to ensure there is a neutral third party watching these to ensure their integrity.”
Alquist told California Watch the department’s current program isn’t going far enough.