Correctional Peace Officers Work a Tough Beat
By Tim Pompey
It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it, a phrase usually said in jest. But in the case of members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state union representing employees of California’s prison system, it’s a basic truth.
Rene Coronado, who’s worked for sixteen years at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility (VYCF) on Wright Road in Camarillo, briefly described his daily work environment. “We deal with people that most people don’t want to deal with,” he said. “It’s tough. Fights, gang related, family problems. We deal with troubled youth, many of whom have single parents or no parents at all.”
Daryl Lee, who was employed at VYCF for twenty-four years and now serves on the executive council of the CCPOA as the vice president for the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), described the youth population there as “the most dangerous, and they’ve failed rehabilitative services at the local level.”
It’s no surprise then that among members of the CCPOA, a special bond forms. The stress and danger of the job brings them together and leads them to support each other in good times and bad.
Some of that support comes from gatherings such as the one held Saturday night, August 10 at the Bamboo Steakhouse in Camarillo, about five minutes or so from the VYCF campus. It’s a union-sponsored event with balloons and a DJ, a festive atmosphere with a strong sense of camaraderie in the room.
Ruby Gaston, who worked as a correctional peace officer at VYCF for 28 years before retiring, still comes to these events because she loved her job and she loves the people that she worked with. “My career not only was something that was my income, it was something I loved to do,” she said. “Over the years, I developed a love for the people who worked there, and I want to be an encouragement to those who still work there.”
VYCF has been refashioned since she started in 1980. From simply jailing kids to providing specialized help for an increased number of children suffering from mental illness, the clientele and the treatment that these convicted youths receive has changed dramatically. As Gaston explained: “We started getting a lot of mentally ill youth, and from the time I started in 1980, there’s a big difference in the treatment needed. Drug babies, kids with fetal alcohol syndrome, kids that had been in the foster care system, kids with parents incarcerated. When these kinds of kids started coming in, we weren’t prepared.”
That changed in 2005, when a lawsuit forced the DJJ to become more skilled at providing specialized treatment for their young population.
The numbers of incarcerated youths in the state juvenile system also dramatically decreased. From 10,000 kids in custody and fifteen facilities across the state prior to the lawsuit, the DJJ is now down to three facilities and about seven-hundred kids. The Camarillo facility is the last state juvenile correctional facility in Southern California. “For the last 10 years we’ve had court intervention that has transformed us from warehousing kids to providing the most cutting edge treatment services in the U.S.,” said Lee. “Youth now are actually being reformed upon their release.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, there is a certain reward that officers gain from doing this type of work. “I’ve seen a lot of guys turn their life around,” said Craig Blow, a 12-year veteran. “Guys who’ve beat some people around, and they start programming to take care of their business and go to school. Sometimes the satisfaction of this job is knowing that you had a part in it.”
Elsa Zavala, who’s worked with the DJJ since 1986, comes to these gatherings to support her fellow officers. “It’s an opportunity for the staff to just let each other know that we appreciate one another,” she said.
Zavala believes that this is all part of her personal workplace philosophy, which is to encourage officers to care for each other and ensure their safety. As she explained: “When I talk to my new staff, my advice is to look out for each other, take care of each other.”
Lee feels that people should be aware of the training and dedication of correctional peace officers. “Without trained officers mandated to complete an academy, these guys at VYCF could easily walk away and create havoc in the public,” he pointed out.
Having these types of gatherings acknowledges the correctional peace officers’ hard work and the support they provide to their inmates and to each other. “This is the kind of job that has many years of service and you form close bonds because you work daily with the same person,” he said. “This is our way as a union to give back to the rank and file and to the administrators.”