It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard has the toughest job in California politics.
From a widespread hunger strike to a never-ending battle with federal judges over control of health care in California’s prisons, Beard has faced crisis after crisis since he joined the Brown Administration late last year.
With all those problems, you’d forgive Beard for having second thoughts about his new job. But the secretary’s response is pretty understated. “You know, I think they make the job just – very interesting,” he told KQED during a lengthy interview.
It’s a typical response from Beard, who developed a reputation as a policy-obsessed, always-serious technocrat over his four-decade career in corrections.
Beard has been on the job in California since last December. But before that, he spent a decade running Pennsylvania’s prison system. There, he fought many of the same battles he’s fighting in California.
Cleaning up after a riot
Beard’s first big test came in October 1989. That’s when inmates seized control of an overcrowded suburban Harrisburg prison during two days of vicious riots. Inmates burned down more than half the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill. They took five hostages. The riot shocked Pennsylvania, and forced Governor Bob Casey to launch a blue-ribbon commission aimed at uncovering where things went wrong.
But before the commission even got started, Beard was charged with cleaning up the mess. He was plucked from an assignment running a Western Pennsylvania prison and named Camp Hill’s acting warden. “I had hostile inmates, I had staff who were very traumatized, and I had a broken institution,” recalled Beard. “So I had to balance all of that and do things to psychologically support the staff, to calm the inmates down, while we were also at the same time rebuilding the facility.”
It was a near-impossible task, but a job Beard did well. He rebuilt and reorganized the prison. He was soon promoted to a regional management job, and by 2001 he was running Pennsylvania’s entire corrections system.
Reporter Don Gilliland, who covers corrections for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, said Beard got high marks from the corrections community. “Beard consistently was saying the right things,” he said. “He maintained a top-flight data department in the state prison. He really had a good sense of what was happening in the prisons.”
An uphill fight against prison overcrowding
Beard used his position to push for sentencing reforms – less hard time and more treatment for drug offenders. He was one of the first Pennsylvania corrections secretaries to say the state needed less mandatory sentencing and more treatment options.
Pennsylvania’s prisons were too packed. That’s a lesson Beard learned when he was rebuilding after the Camp Hill riots, which had been largely caused by overcrowding. Three years after the fact, Camp Hill was still above capacity. Beard told a local reporter at the time that the $60 million rebuilding dollar effort wouldn’t work unless the state scaled back mandatory prison sentences.
He said, “We can’t afford to keep locking everybody up.” That’s a battle Beard fought – and for the most part lost – for most of his career.
Between 1980 and 2010, the state’s prison population went from about 8,000 inmates to more than 50,000. Beard blamed “tough on crime” sentencing trends, and spent his time as corrections secretary lobbying lawmakers to undo them.
Gilliland doesn’t blame Beard for the spike. “Prisons are like a bucket of water,” he explained. “Where you have a couple of hoses feeding water into the top, you have a variety of spigots letting water out. The problem is the people who control the water coming in are a completely different bureaucracy than [those who] control the spigot coming out. And the secretary of corrections has no control over either bureaucracy.”
Beard did play a major role in passing a slate of sentencing reforms in 2008 – the first Pennsylvania had seen in decades. But they didn’t quite work. During his last year, Pennsylvania had to export 2 thousand prisoners to other states.
“Historically, we have overused segregation”
Beard, of course, is facing much larger population problems in California. He and Gov. Jerry Brown spent most of the year losing a series of legal challenges over federal control of California prisons’ health care. The state now has until mid-February to move more than 8,000 people out of California’s prisons in order to reduce overcrowding.
And while Beard and Brown fought with judges this summer, thousands of inmates launched a system-wide hunger strike. The protest was aimed at ending California’s practice of locking up suspected prison gang leaders in segregated housing – sometimes for decades at a time. Critics call it torture.
Beard said he understands why segregated confinement stirs up so much anger. He defended the practice as necessary, to protect other inmates and to control gangs. But in our interview, Beard did make an admission.
“I think that probably historically we have overused segregation a little too much everywhere,” he said. “I think we did back in Pennsylvania. I think there’s other states that have done it, perhaps in the past in California. And that’s why California now has the new gang management policy.”
This is the new plan the state rolled out that re-evaluates who’s being kept in security housing, and provides a years’-long path out of isolation for inmates who cooperate.
Caring for mentally-ill inmates
The hunger strike is now long over, but controversies are still dogging the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A Sacramento trial is shining a light on how the state treats mentally ill inmates. Graphic videos aired in court recently, showing guards dousing screaming prisoners with pepper spray.
Again, Beard faced similar controversy in Pennsylvania. Bob Meek is an attorney with the Disability Rights Network. He spent years investigating how Pennsylvania dealt with mentally-ill inmates. In a lawsuit, the group alleged the state simply locked many of them up in segregated housing, rather than treat them. “They would just continue to act out and continue to act up, and they would never get out,” he said.
Beard disputed the charge and pointed to programs he launched aimed at treating mentally ill inmates.
Adjusting to California
Beard is approaching one year on the job here in California. And with all the crises on his plate, he’s yet to really put his stamp on department policies.
Beard came to the job as an outsider and a critic. He was a key witness in the 2008 trial ordering California to lower its prison population. At the time he blasted the state’s prisons as overcrowded and dangerous — conditions he now insists the state has since turned around. After retiring from his Pennsylvania post in 2010, Beard began working with California as a consultant. (The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied KQED’s public records request for copies of memos Beard produced during this period.)
Beard admitted it’s hard to figure out a new state after 38 years somewhere else. For one thing, he says he doesn’t know the longtime staffers like he did in Pennsylvania. And the rules are different. “A lot of times when something comes up about a policy or something, I have to ask somebody or I have to go and look it up. Whereas in Pennsylvania, I wrote a lot of the policies.”
And there’s the unique experience of working with Jerry Brown. Beard served under two high-profile Pennsylvania governors: Republican Tom Ridge and Democrat Ed Rendell. But he said Brown is different – much more hands-on. “He’s interested in what I do,” Beard said. “And doesn’t just say, hey do the job and keep things quiet. I see him as being more actively engaged. But it’s not just with me. It’s with every facet of government. And I think that’s a good thing.”
The two of them share the same goal: ending federal control of California’s prisons as soon as possible.
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