It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard has the toughest job in California politics.

Beard unveiled  a new medical prison in Stockton this summer (Scott Detrow / KQED News)
Beard unveiled a new medical prison in Stockton this summer (Scott Detrow / KQED News)

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.

Beard in 1993, when he was rebuilding Pennsylvania's Camp Hill prison after a riot. (Carlisle Sentinel)
Beard in 1993, when he was rebuilding Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill prison after a riot. (Carlisle Sentinel)

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.

A 2011 view of Pelican Bay State Prisons Security Housing Unit. (SHU). August 17, 2011. (Michael Montgomery/KQED)
A 2011 view of Pelican Bay State Prisons Security Housing Unit. (SHU). August 17, 2011. (Michael Montgomery/KQED)

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

Beard facing questions from reporters in June (Scott Detrow / KQED)
Beard facing questions from reporters in June (Scott Detrow / KQED)

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.

Listen to the California Report audio:

  • FrankCourser

    Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard problems are self inflicted.
    His approach to corrections has been schizophrenic at best! He has championed for reform and at the
    same time been the godfather of prison expansion. His reforms went no where, so
    he has taken a hard line approach to please politicians, unable to stick with
    what he knows works versus what will win the approval of the governor and
    legislature. He has fallen into the same mold as every past Secretary of
    Corrections, a yes man to the governor! California needs a Corrections
    Secretary that will use evidence based policies of reform and will stand up to
    the Governor and legislature that are driven by those that have a vested
    interest in keeping prison jammed. Jeffery Beard has an opportunity now to prove his leadership and
    principle. He knows well California will
    never overcome its prison overcrowding without sentencing and parole reforms! He
    can demonstrate it by example. There are thousands of frail, elderly and ill
    inmates that can be released without endangering public safety. He can encourage
    the legislature to end mandatory sentencing laws that have turned our prisons
    into geriatric and hospice hospitals. The cost can not be sustained and he
    knows it! It’s time Jeffery Beard show
    leadership and tell the governor and legislature what must to be done, rather
    than what he thinks they want to hear!

  • Beard left a horror trail in Pennsylvania and expanded their prison system to the moon. He calls himself a psychiatric professional but he is fully aware of the torture taking place in California’s prisons. Anyone viewing the tapes can see that he is an active participant in such torture by holding no one accountable. This type of abuse is why the media has been banned from being able to film and interview inmates since 1996 except in very controlled situations.

    The cronyism is so thick that they even have the State judges throwing out the cases filed by desperate inmates. There is no attempt to better the situation because they don’t see the prisoners as human beings. Brown and his poodle Beard are too sold out to the CCPOA and bringing a “profit” from denying decent housing, food, medical and dental care, rehab back to the State in order to pay their high salaries. Both have blood on their hands.

  • This entire situation and article reads like a bad horror story!

  • Nina Courtney

    Mr. Beard or any person affiliated with running prisons over the last 30 years are the wrong people for the job. They helped with the problem we have now all over this country. They are part of the problem, they can’t fix it unless they admit what they have been doing created the problems. Simply put prison should be about restorative justice not punishment.Addiction and mental illness is a mental health issue not a criminal issue. Mandatory minimums and stacking charges so that people plead out needs to be stopped. Prisons for profit are morally wrong, Unionizing the prison guards was a great mistake and campaign contributions from these unions helped create this mess.

  • Betty Garcia

    California’s problems need to be address from start to finish with as little casualties as possible. The sentencing guidelines need correction, the inmates need medical care, the CDCR policies regarding solitary confinement need change that needs to be done ASAP our system is broken. Lives are being lost and not enough is being done.
    Solitary confinement needs to STOP its driving sane men insane, its pre-meditate deliberate abuse and torture whats the sentence for that? Gov Brown and Secretary Beard need to change the habit of warehousing human beings.There are thousands of frail, elderly and ill inmates that can be released without endangering public safety. And at the same time place all inmates with any kind of mental illness in proper facilities and the prison cap will be met. Anyone that does nothing is condoning this horror that goes on daily.

  • CannabisAmbassador

    How about we let all the cannabis users out. It is ridiculous that you get more time for cannabis possession than you do murder.

    The number of marijuana prisoners has held more or less steady in California since the height of the drug war in the late 1980s, despite the passage of Prop. 215. There are now over 14 times as many marijuana prisoners in California as in 1980. This does not count federal prisoners, such as Dr. Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer, Bryan Epis, Eddy Lepp, DC Costa, Virgil Grant, Kenneth Affotler, Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes, all of whom are serving mandatory minimums of at least five years for medical marijuana.

    Altogether, the state held 24,959 prisoners for inherently non-violent drug offenses at latest count; 8,587 of them for simple possession of controlled substances other than marijuana. ( We need to let out, non violent, victimless (except for the user who is victimized by the police) crimes. I have seen minorities receive 55 years for selling small amounts of pot…really? Who are they hurting? Cannabis is so important to humans as a nutrient. Participating in the War on Drugs is participating in the Genocide being perpetuated by the gov against the Citizens of this country and the world.

    Anakka Hartwell – Doctorate in Human Neural Psychology
    Author The Genocide Chronicles, Book 1 “Look Up.” Book 2 Surviving the Genocide
    Founder The Hospice Underground, when Hospice says no to cannabis, we say yes
    Cannabis Ambassador for Serenity Senior and Veterans Center, helping seniors get off of the pharmaceuticals that are killing them and on to more natural and healing cannabis.

  • indigojoe7

    for profit prisons are an abomination & need to be abolished! thousands of people are exacerbating the overcrowding problem by doing time for low level drug possession & society would be much better served by rehabilitating them & steering them towards college or giving them vocational training most likely lowering recidivism rates therefore lowering crime rates in general…..but that might cut into the bottom lines of the for profit prison corporations. look at the alternatives, then follow the money to see why we still have a punitive system vs. a much more humane system centered on rehabilitation & education.


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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