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California's new prisons chief was once critic of system

Jeffrey Beard, whose testimony was key in the federal case against California, now says court oversight of prisons should be eased.

January 30, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeffrey Beard, the new director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says things have changed since he criticized the state's prisons as an outside expert.
Jeffrey Beard, the new director of the California Department of Corrections… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Jeffrey Beard's expert testimony was cited 39 times in the federal court order that capped California's prison population in 2009. He said the state's prisons were severely overcrowded, unsafe and unable to deliver adequate care to inmates.

At the time, he was Pennsylvania's prisons chief. Now, he's Gov. Jerry Brown's new corrections secretary, and his first order of business is to persuade the same judges to lift the cap, as well as to end the court's longtime hold on prison mental health care.

"I agree with what I said back then," Beard said Tuesday in one of his first interviews as the new head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "On the flip side," he said, "things have changed."

California has 35,000 fewer inmates than when Beard testified in U.S. District Court in 2008, though that has not been enough to satisfy the judges, who want the population reduced by thousands more. On Tuesday, they gave the state until the end of this year — an extra six months — to meet their cap.

Beard said inmate medical care is better now, and he has more understanding of California's sprawling prison system. When he testified, he had only been to the historic prison in Folsom. His comments then about overcrowding, unsafe conditions and inadequate care came from the reports of other experts and from his work on a 2006 state task force examining recidivism.

"I've now been in about 20 of the institutions," he said Tuesday.

Beard said his perspective started to change in 2011, when he retired from his Pennsylvania post and began to do consulting work for California. His work included inspecting prisons and meeting with the court's special master for prison mental health care.

He said he no longer finds California prisons too large. He had told federal judges that it is difficult to safely run a prison with more than 3,300 inmates, according to court transcripts. Commenting on a California prison with 7,000 inmates, he had testified, "it is impossible to really do a good job with prisons that large."

"One of the things I didn't know back then," Beard said Tuesday, was how the prisons here were designed and built."

He said California creates prisons within prisons — three or four self-contained institutions within one facility — that allow for larger populations.

In 2008, transcripts show, Beard testified that California guards interfered with delivery of medical care because they were preoccupied with safety.

"You can't change the culture until you reduce the population and can make the institution safe," he said then.

Now, Beard says California is delivering adequate care to prisoners, even if its institutions hold as many as 80% more inmates than they were designed to accommodate. Beard noted that the state has spent "millions and millions and millions" retrofitting its prison medical facilities.

Beard once told federal judges that prison suicide rates — which are now climbing in California — are an important indicator of care quality. The rising rate merits concern, Beard said Tuesday, "but it doesn't mean you're not providing constitutional care."

As the judges weigh the governor's bid to end court oversight of prison healthcare, inmates' lawyers say Beard's move from critic to cheerleader gives them pause.

"He doesn't become appointed and things suddenly change from bad to good," said Donald Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office. His agency's lawsuit against the state over prison healthcare 12 years ago ultimately resulted in the appointment of a federal receiver.

"We're going to point out [that] some of the things he was critical of are still not alleviated," Specter said.

Beard's appointment as corrections secretary requires confirmation by the state Senate.

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