Brown’s prisons chief takes on ‘system in crisis’

Over objections from Republican lawmakers, the state Senate on Thursday confirmed Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to run a corrections department one legislative leader described as “a system in crisis.”

Jeffrey Beard, who came out of retirement after serving as chief of Pennsylvania’s prisons, now officially commands a system with 29,000 inmates in the fourth day of a massive meal strike, a federal order to shrink the prison population by 9,600, and two facilities stricken with fatal cases of valley fever.

There are also lawsuits over medical care, psychiatric care, the use of force and solitary confinement, as well as state appeals pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and growing complaints from counties that have been given thousands of felons to oversee.


“We have a system in crisis,” said Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee and a supporter of Beard. She said he brings a “commitment to enlightened reform” to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and needs the full support of the Legislature to tackle those problems.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) supported Beard’s nomination, noting that “he has certainly taken over at a time of legal turmoil,” given the court battles over control of the prisons.

“Jeff Beard knows his business and he knows it well,” Steinberg said. “I am confident he will continue to communicate in a proactive fashion.”

The Senate leader said Beard “is uniquely suited to know what has been wrong, what continues to be wrong and what needs to be fixed.”

Some Republicans opposed Beard because he was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in lawsuits against the state concerning prison overcrowding and psychiatric care. In the past, Beard testified it would be impossible to provide sufficient care to inmates under the crowding conditions that existed at the time.

However, as a consultant last year, Beard told Brown’s administration that he believed California’s prisons were close to coming into constitutional compliance, and that the state was ready to seek an end to federal oversight of those facilities.

The first of those attempts -- a motion to end federal scrutiny of psychiatric care -- failed to pass muster with a federal judge and has now embroiled the state in new litigation concerning practices that put mentally ill inmates in isolation, or subject them to physical force and tear gas.

Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) was among those who questioned Beard’s involvement as a witness in the lawsuit against the state.

“Mr. Beard has a credibility and a conflict problem here,” Nielsen said.

He said the rate of inmate deaths in Pennsylvania while Beard headed that system was the third worst in the country. He also said the Brown administration’s solution to overcrowding -- shifting inmates to county jails and parole -- has “put our families at risk.”

“His policies and his record do not attest that he is the best man for the job,” Nielsen said.


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