June 11, 2006

A couple of things you should know upfront about law enforcement types like Samuel Morales:

First, he guards state prisoners, but don't call him a prison guard to his face. He prefers “correctional officer.” It sounds more professional to him.

Second, he's not a thug. That's the mistake a lot of Californians make about people in his line of work: That they're sadists and knuckle-draggers, like the snarling wardens that hog the screen in prison movies.
This is no movie set Morales works on.

This is Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, a prison outpost ringed by curtains of wire and a thicket of yellow wildflowers. It houses 4,700 convicts, watched over by 700 guards.

“There are not many of us and there are too many of them,” says Morales, noting the recent boom in the inmate population. “My job is more challenging now.”

California runs one of the largest – and one of the most violent – prison systems in the nation. Inmate medical care remains poor.

The prison population, already at a record high, partly due to California's three-strikes law, is expected to grow from 171,000 to 193,000 in five years.The annual prison budget has swelled from $6 billion to $8 billion since Gov. Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, and it still doesn't seem to have enough to fully fund key reforms.

Working the pens are 33,000 guards.

In the debate over how to fix the prison system, guards are often made out to be the bad guys. Maybe it's because many earn big salaries, or because they are represented by one of the state's most powerful unions, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Rank-and-file correctional officers, however, see themselves as bit players in a system swamped by problems beyond their reach.

Many earn hefty paychecks all right, largely because they put in so much overtime due to staff shortages.

But some pay a beastly price for it.

“A lot of the staff feels that the public doesn't really want to know what goes on behind our walls,” said a 38-year-old guard at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, who, like several others, requested anonymity so he could speak frankly about his work. “They think of us as the garbage men of the law enforcement community.”

Surrounded by felons, misfits and the chemically imbalanced, it's a rare guard who hasn't been cursed, kicked, pushed, stabbed, slugged, spit on or gassed.

Gassing is when an inmate hurls feces, urine or blood – or a mix of the three – in a guard's face.

A correctional officer at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California said he's been gassed five times in his 10 years at the maximum-security lockup.

One inmate, heavily medicated because of a psychiatric disorder, laughed as he did it.

The guard showered five times that night to get the smell out.

“I was angry at first, but then I had to remind myself that this person was on psychiatric drugs,” said Nick W., the 59-year-old correctional officer, who would only speak on the condition that his full name not be used. “When you are in a society with nothing but felons, those kinds of things are going to happen.”

Many guards worry that the hazards of the job will escalate as the inmate population grows.

Making matters worse: The shortage of correctional officers and other prison staff. Last year, 8 percent of guard positions were unfilled.

At many of California's 32 prisons, guards complain that state budget constraints and chronic staffing gaps are already leading to compromises in safety.

At Donovan on a recent morning, Morales supervised 186 inmates spread over one large room. In previous years, at least two guards would stand watch over the minimum-security housing unit.

A few prisoners played cards in their undershirts. Others watched “The Price is Right” on a tiny TV.

Morales, a 20-year veteran of the prison business, said inmates today display a more in-your-face attitude toward staff.

They also have a wily streak. “These guys have vivid imaginations,” he said. “They can do anything with anything.”

Morales recently found a stash of prison-made alcohol, known as “pruno,” in his unit. The concoction – made from fermented fruit, sugar and other ingredients – smelled like vomit and looked like wine cooler.

Inmates like to hide the rotgut in a plastic bag behind the shower-room plumbing.

At another prison, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, three guards recently stood watch over 200 inmates housed in the prison's former gym. Many prisons operate at more than twice their original capacity, forcing officials to crowd convicts into gyms and other spaces.

The Norco inmates wore orange jumpsuits and stood around metal bunk beds lining the scruffy tile floor.

It had been a tough 24 hours inside the minimum-security unit. A water main broke, forcing the staff to bring in Porta Potties. The roof leaked from a rainstorm. During the downpour, some lights were switched off because the staff worried that the rainwater would cause an electrical short.

Said one longtime guard: “If you want a feel for some of the problems the prison system is facing, just look around the room.”

Frustration among some guards runs deep – over the shortage of money for prison repairs, over the political back-and-forth in Sacramento about prison reform.

“We complain, complain and complain about problems and all we get is lip service,” said a longtime guard at California Men's Colony, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from his bosses. “Morale right now is extremely low.”

Near noon on a recent weekday, a radio call went out across Donovan: “Attention all officers. We have 14 full, 8-hour positions available for overtime.”

Lt. Gregory Sloan, who heads Donovan's personnel assignment office, says as many as 60 guards work additional shifts each day – and only about half do it voluntarily.

“It's become a huge challenge for the staff,” Sloan said.

Many put in 16 hours of overtime a week, on top of their regular, 40-hour schedule. As a result, they are seeing the biggest paychecks of their lives.

A recent San Diego Union-Tribune analysis found that about one out of 10 state guards earned more than $100,000 last year. A correctional officer in Northern California led the pack, grossing $187,000. The average base salary for a guard last year was $57,000, the analysis showed.

It's not unusual for guards to work back-to-back shifts, supervising convicts for 16 consecutive hours.

They end their workdays bleary-eyed, or heavily caffeinated.

“I'm tired right now. My eyes are burning,” said Donovan guard Christie Ferguson, near the close of a recent 64-hour workweek. “My partner kind of carried the load today.”

Another downside, she said: “I don't get to see my family.”

To prepare for the long days, many guards pack two big lunches.

At Donovan, correctional officer Frank Corona brought in linguine with shrimp, and apples, oranges and cheese on a recent weekday. “It's getting to the point where you never know if you are going to make it home anymore,” he said.