Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Former critic set to take reins at Corrections

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Jeffrey Beard's testimony in the landmark litigation over California's violent prison system cut to the bone.

Beard, a psychologist by training, ran the Pennsylvania prison system, worked in that state's prison system for 35 years and appeared on behalf of California inmates who contended, righteously, that our state's prisons were so overcrowded that the level of medical and mental health care constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Beard told the three federal judges that California's prisons were not safe. With prisoners triple-bunked in every available space, workers couldn't provide adequate health and mental health care.

"Over the last 20 years, they've spent billions of dollars on construction and building, and they haven't really been able to dig their way out of the hole," Beard testified.

That was on Nov. 19, 2008. On Friday, Beard will arrive at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters in Sacramento for his first day as its new director.

One of Gov. Jerry Brown's most intriguing appointments, Beard will be Exhibit A as the governor argues that the federal courts should end their direct oversight of the prison system and that litigation that began in 1990 should end.

Pointing out that the prisoners' expert witness is in charge now, Brown declared last week: "We can run our own prisons, and by God, let those judges give us our prisons back."

At age 65, Beard hardly needed another entry on his résumé. He was teaching in a Pennsylvania college and consulting, having retired as Pennsylvania's prison director in 2010. But he told me by phone that he sees a "unique opportunity" to help restore what once was a model prison system.

When he testified against California's prison operations five years ago, he would have turned down the job. "You couldn't do anything. Nobody wanted to do anything about overcrowding," he told me.

Until his appearance in that San Francisco courtroom, Beard had never testified on behalf of inmates in any prison case. Replying to one of the prisoners' rights lawyers, he explained why he decided to testify, without charge, about how another state ran its prisons.

"I see that California has this problem that has just been going on and on for years and years and years, and nobody seems to be willing to step up to the plate to fix the problem," he testified. "And more importantly, the prisons aren't safe. They aren't safe for the staff and the inmates."

"I suppose if I can do anything to help in that, that's why I'm here today," he said.

The prison construction and population boom had been going on since the 1980s, fed by legislators who voted for ever longer sentences, governors who feared their careers would end if parolees committed heinous crimes, and ever rising sums of tax money.

There were gladiator fights at Corcoran State Prison. Correctional officers shot and killed inmates regularly. And there were lawsuits. Conditions would have worsened more but for the attorneys who brought the case to the highest court in the land.

In 2011, a few months after Brown assumed office, the U.S. Supreme Court held that California needed to slash the inmate population to 110,000 in the 33 adult prisons in order to provide health and mental health care that met constitutional standards.

Today, after a massive criminal justice realignment pushed by Brown, there are 119,192 inmates in those 33 prisons, down from a high of 162,292 in October 2006. It's among the most significant policy reversals this state has ever seen. But there remain 9,000 prisoners beyond the number permitted under the federal court order.

Brown contends that the state has cut enough and that counties, which must manage an influx of felons formerly sent to prison, need time to digest the change. That is a reasonable stand, in light of protests by local police and an uptick in crime in parts of the state.

"They've made significant changes very quickly, which is one of the reasons we shouldn't go further right now," Beard said.

He believes California's prison health care meets constitutional standards, and that other states should emulate this state's mental health care. Instead of warehousing inmates until their release, the state can implement more programs to combat recidivism.

"We have a public safety responsibility to do something with the inmates when they're with us," he said.

That's quite a concept. That's something that California did well decades ago, but lost along the way.

Attorneys representing prisoners are skeptical that the changes will take hold. No doubt, problems remain. Prisons always will be tough places. Suicides and homicides and gang wars continue.

But as California asks that the judges end their direct oversight, Beard's arrival should count for something. The number of inmates has fallen by more than 40,000, and that is dramatic. Aspects of the litigation date back 23 years. There must be finality.