Capitol Alert

California prison chief to leave

Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has announced he plans to retire.
Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has announced he plans to retire. AP

California’s top prison official is stepping down at the end of this year.

Jeffrey Beard, 68, will retire after three years as secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, Beard set Jan. 1 as the effective date of his departure.

Prior to his appointment to California’s highest correctional position, Beard worked for decades in Pennsylvania’s state prison system, including positions as corrections counselor, warden, classification and treatment supervisor, superintendent and executive deputy secretary.

In his letter, Beard said he and Brown had made “significant progress” meeting court orders to reduce overcrowding and improve health care. He added that “prisons are also safer now,” and that the corrections department had made progress stemming the flow of drugs behind bars and improving staff training.

Beard inherited a department in turmoil when Brown tapped him to replace Matthew Cate in late 2012.

The state was under orders from a federal court to relieve overcrowding, so lawmakers enacted measures that sentenced low-level offenders to local jail terms and parole instead of state prison. The law eventually met the court mandate through attrition, but some local authorities complained that it has overburdened their jails and put convicted criminals on the streets who formerly would have been imprisoned.

Ironically, Beard was an expert witness on the side of the plaintiffs in the overcrowding case that triggered what became known as realignment. His criticism of the state’s prison management drew fire from Republicans during his confirmation hearing several months later.

Around that same time, nearly 29,000 prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates at two San Joaquin Valley prisons fell ill with Valley fever and reports surfaced that prison doctors had sterilized female inmates in violation of prison rules.

During Beard’s tenure, the state settled one lawsuit that contended inmates were excessively punished for allegations of gang affiliation and another lawsuit that said they were punished by race.

More recently, the secretary was put in an awkward position over department policy for staffing inmate fire camps. In October, the corrections officials said they might change a long-standing policy that excludes inmates whose crimes fall under the state’s legal definition of a “violent offense.”

The announcement raised safety concerns, however, and the department pulled back. Then it had to acknowledge that some violent offenders were already assigned to fire camps, despite information on the CDCR website to the contrary.

The Governor’s Office on Thursday issued a brief statement acknowledging Beard’s pending retirement, a link to his resignation letter and praise for “his outstanding leadership.” It did not name a successor to the post.