California prisons are awful places. The walls are gray, the space is crowded and the threat of violence is always present. Every day, prison staff must guard against vengeful inmates who would slash their arms or throw urine in their face.
An Orange County Register analysis of state worker salaries shows that employees of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are among some of the best paid workers in state government.
CDCR, as the department is known at the State Capitol, employs more people and spends more on staff than any of the other 150 departments delineated in the salary data provided by the State Controller’s office. In calendar year 2009, the corrections department employed more than 68,000 people, paying them more than $4.78 billion. The next closest department was Transportation, better known as CalTrans, which employed more than 23,000 people and paid them more than $1.49 billion in salary, overtime and other wages.
But even with such a huge workforce, Corrections still ranked in the top 20 for highest average pay. Corrections employees took home an average of roughly $70,000 in 2009, 19th highest of the state’s 151 departments, behind the Legislature, the Supreme Court and statutory officers, among others. The Department of Transportation came in 32nd.
Corrections has been roundly condemned by reformers, federal courts and state lawmakers as poor performing and ineffective at rehabilitation. But the department has the most state employees who received more than $100,000 in 2009, the most receiving more than $200,000, the most receiving more than $300,000, the most receiving more than $400,000, the most receiving more than $500,000 and was tied for the most receiving more than $600,000 (one, equal to the State Compensation Insurance Fund).
“As we find these high paid psychiatrists, say, people wonder, ‘Why don’t I get that?’ ” said Joan Petersilia, faculty co-director of the Stanford University’s Criminal Justice Center and one of the foremost experts on California prisons. “Working for the prison system … might be quite a good job in this economy,” she said.
Corrections officials insist they are focused on saving money. Spokeswoman Terry Thornton said that unlike other public safety workers in state government, corrections employees were furloughed three times a month in 2009, necessitating big overtime costs to ensure that the prisons continue to be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Meanwhile, she said, at least 4,520 employees have left the department in 2009 and 2010 through voluntary layoffs or retirements; other positions have remained vacant for months at a time. When employees leave state service, they are eligible to cash in on unused leave time, sometimes resulting in large “lump sum” payments.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep costs to a minimum,” Thornton said, adding that the Department of Personnel Administration, not corrections, is responsible for setting all corrections salaries.
Who’s earning these big dollars? Top payouts went to physicians, dentists and psychologists who work in the prison system, but many correctional officers and their supervisors received six figures as well. And unlike the medical professionals, their jobs only require a high school diploma.
•Timothy B. Malan, chief dentist at Avenal State Prison, received the most in the corrections department in 2009, taking home $621,970.69. More than half of that money – $316,736.87 – came from accrued leave he received in one lump sum when he left the department.
The chief dentist at Wasco State Prison, Stanley E. Kuntzman, received the second most, $500,203, with 32 percent coming from a lump sum payout and another 2.2 percent from overtime. (Corrections eliminated the chief dentist position and laid off all the chief dentists in 2009. They all cashed out their unused leave that year.)
Third highest was Nguyet M. Dam, staff psychiatrist at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi at $451,944, with 31 percent of that money from overtime. Fourth was Alfred Q. Noriega, a physician and surgeon at California State Prison, Solano, who took home $448,689, 71 percent of which came from a lump sum payment he received when he left the department.
In all, 276 physicians, 242 psychiatrists and 180 dentists employed by Corrections took home more than $200,000 in 2009. Another 74 medical workers, including counselors, nurses, chief medical officers of prisons and executive medical officers working for the federal receiver overseeing the state’s prison health system, also received more than $200,000.
•The highest paid non-medical employee in Corrections was Franklin D. Tucker III, a parole agent based out of Los Angeles County. He took home $301,117 in 2009, including $12,181.39 in overtime. (Tucker was dismissed from CDCR in 2006, but returned to work in 2009 when the department withdrew its action, according to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Tucker received back pay plus interest in 2009.) Four other parole agents received more than $200,000 as well as three correctional officers (prison guards), three correctional sergeants (who oversee prison guards) and five correctional lieutenants (who oversee correctional sergeants).
The highest paid of the correctional staff was Correctional Lieutenant Dennis Evans of the California Correctional Center in Susanville, who received $251,864 in 2009, 70 percent of that from a lump sum payment. (His regular pay accounted for only $56,572.)
Parole agents are required to have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Correctional officers and their supervisors only need the equivalent of a high school diploma. In all, 4,169 correctional officers, 957 correctional sergeants, 683 correctional lieutenants and 527 parole agents took home more than $100,000 in 2009.
•Top corrections policy makers and leaders also garnered high pay, but they were outpaced by the medical staff and some of the other front-line workers. Derral Adams, warden of California State Prison, Corcoran, took home $247,519 in 2009 – only the 12th highest at his own institution that year. Some 52 percent of that money came from a lump sum payout. California State Prison, Sacramento Warden James P. Walker received $298,769, 28th highest at that prison. Fifty-seven percent of his pay that year came from a lump sum payout when he left the department.
Matthew Cate, CDCR secretary appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead the entire state prison system, took home $203,884 in 2009. Seven hundred and sixty-eight correction employees received more than him in 2009.
“It’s concerning that our public employees are getting paid so much when the product they’re producing, the rehabilitation of inmates, is an abysmal failure,” said Matt Gray, a Sacramento lobbyist and executive director of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety.
Thornton, the corrections spokeswoman, said the high pay for medical professionals is the work of the federal receiver in charge of the prison health care system. He’s made it a priority to pay doctors and dentists more in order to improve the inmate care.
As for the differences between front-line employees and policy leaders, Thornton said it can be attributed in part to overtime – executive and administrative staffers aren’t eligible for it, but some front-line workers are. At the same time, many workers received extra money simply by cashing out on their unused leave time when they left the department.
Cause and effect
For years now, pundits and politicians and independent analysts have singled out the prison system as a primary cause of the state’s financial problems. Corrections has increasingly taken a bigger and bigger bite out of the state budget.
In fiscal year 1976-77, for example, just 3.32 percent of the state’s General Fund ($344.3 million) went to corrections. This year, 10.32 percent ($8.9 billion) is budgeted for prisons while the share for higher education, tax relief and natural resources has all decreased. The only area to increase its share of the budget more than corrections is K-12 education, which saw its percentage of the General Fund expand from 27.7 percent in 1976-77 to 41.69 percent this year.
“Corrections is one of the few areas that has seen significant growth,” acknowledged Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that analyzes state spending. But she was quick to add that it’s not necessarily CDCR’s fault.
Ross said corrections spending has increased in part because the state Legislature has been unwilling to wrestle with the fundamental question of how many people should be in state prison. Instead, sentencing laws have been established piecemeal by the Legislature and voters, expanding the prison population without any overarching policy guiding it.
Today, the corrections department houses more than 162,000 inmates and monitors another 108,000 parolees across the state.
Not surprisingly for a department responsible for that many people, food costs and community-based parole programs make up a sizeable portion of corrections’ budget. But no expense takes up a larger percentage than its payroll.
Salaries and wages account for 55 percent of corrections’ budget this year. Throw in worker benefits and employee costs account for 74 percent of corrections’ operations budget. Of the 10 general “agency areas” of state government, only two – Business, Transportation and Housing and Legislative, Judicial, and Executive – devote a larger percentage of their State Operations budgets to employee costs, and Corrections’ budget is more than 100 times larger than theirs.
According to the State Controller’s 2009 salary database, Corrections employees accounted for about 27 percent of the total number of state workers in the dataset, but received 31 percent of the payments detailed. None of the other 150 departments in the database showed that big of difference.
In other words, salaries and wages are a uniquely powerful cost driver for the state’s prison system.
“The difference between prisons and the DMV is prisons have to be fully staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Ross, the California Budget Project executive director.
Why is pay so high in corrections? There are several reasons. Working with convicted criminals is so unattractive that the state has to offer good pay in order to attract applicants. Prisons are located in lonely rural areas such as Coalinga, Blythe and Ione; high salaries are one way to entice potential workers to move. High pay is necessary to remain competitive in the public safety arena.
But some experts focus on other factors: the state’s powerful prison guard union and the federal government’s receivership of the prison health care system.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, once considered one of the state’s most influential special interest groups, has lost some luster over the last four years; its members have been working without a new contract since 2006. Many around the Capitol believe CCPOA is a mere shadow of its old powerhouse.
But Gray, the director of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, said the prison guards lobby over the last couple of decades has undoubtedly contributed to the high salaries in the corrections department. Gray, who also works as a lobbyist in Sacramento, said special interest groups try to model themselves after the prison guards, who during their heyday were well organized and relentless, using every headline from the prison system as a public relations tool to argue for greater pay and benefits for their members. The union spent an average of $23,000 a month on lobbying in Sacramento over the last two years, according to public records—half a million dollars since early 2009.
The prison guard union might be perceived as weak now, but Gray said cumulative efforts over the years are at least partly responsible for the high salaries we see today.
“This is the five-, 10- and 15-year plan coming to fruition,” he said.
The union, for its part, doesn’t think its advocacy on behalf of prison guard affected the overall wages of all corrections employees. Spokesman Ryan Sherman said, for example, the union doesn’t represent the highly paid medical professionals in the prison system. Furthermore, he said, prison guards don’t make all that much compared to other state public safety employees, like California Highway Patrol officers.
“Our officers make less than the CHP, but we have the same hiring requirements,” Sherman said. “I don’t think we did anything out of the ordinary for our members.”
Also affecting the budget is the federal receiver overseeing the prison system’s health services. Enacted in 2005, the receivership is the result of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the health care offered in California prisons was so bad that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The state settled the case in 2002 by agreeing to several fixes that would bring prison health care back into line with constitutional standards. Federal Judge Thelton E. Henderson, however, wasn’t happy with the pace of progress and in June 2005 put the prison health system into receivership, removing any state authority over medical care in state prisons. (The receiver does not have authority over dental and mental health services.)
Today, all decisions related to the medical care offered in California prisons are under the jurisdictions of a federal receiver, J. Clark Kelso. While he must abide by Department of Personnel Administration rules as if he ran a state department, the receiver has the authority to hire and fire medical personnel and set policies. To attract quality health care workers to the prison system, the previous receiver, Robert Sillen, set high salaries for doctors and other medical professionals.