California's new corrections boss ready to end federal oversight of prison healthcare

Jeffrey A. Beard, appointed as Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Governor Jerry Brown on December 27, 2012.
Jeffrey A. Beard, appointed as Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Governor Jerry Brown on December 27, 2012. COurtesy California Department of Corrections

California faces a December deadline to ease overcrowding in the state’s 33 prisons.  That’s to comply with federal court orders to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates.   But last month Governor Brown vowed to get those orders overturned and to end federal oversight of mental health care.

“We can run our own prisons,” Brown said. “By God, let those judges give us our prisons back. We’ll run them right.” There's also an economic factor: the state has spent billions complying with the federal mandates.

Now, the Governor has appointed a new prison boss who’s uniquely qualified to wage his fight with the “those judges.”

California’s new Corrections Secretary, Jeff Beard, ran Pennsylvania’s prisons for nearly a decade. During that time, he was called as an expert witness in a hearing on California's prisons. He testified that “severe overcrowding” was “the biggest inhibiting factor” in the delivery of health care. That hearing led a three-judge court to order the state to reduce its prison population – a decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2010.

 Today, Beard says health care in California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is being adequately provided.

“From everything I’ve been able to see, and nationally-known experts have been able to see, and the inspector general has been able to see, the CDCR is offering a constitutional level of care for medical and mental health,” Beard said in an interview this week.

Beard says California has reduced the inmate population by 43,000 inmates since 2006. He sees no reason to reduce by another 9,000 inmates as the court has ordered. One good reason he stresses: The enactment of realignment in 2011 has shifted thousands of felons to counties over the past year.

“That’s a huge, dramatic shift that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the counties,” Beard said.  “If you don’t need to go further today to meet a constitutional standard, why don’t we let the counties settle in with the huge changes that have occurred?”

Attorney Michael Bien, who represents California inmates suffering from serious mental illness, begs to differ, saying: “I respect [Beard] a lot, and he has a lot of skills and experience, but I strongly disagree with his position that we’ve done enough now.”

Bien’s firm brought a class action suit two decades ago that forced the state to improve psychiatric care. Bien later pushed for a cap on the prison population as an attempt to end chronic backlogs and delays in treatment that he says thwarted improvements and drove the suicide rate above the national average. Bien says the corrections department has yet to implement many suicide preventions the court ordered.

“Custody officers are not providing CPR to people who they find who are still alive,” Bien says.   “We’re talking about bodies found with rigor mortis, which takes several hours to occur, in a unit where custody officers are obligated to be rounding every 30 minutes to see if somebody is in distress.”

In reports to the court this month, the overseers of prison mental and medical health care separately concluded that California has yet to provide minimally adequate care to inmates. It’s unlikely that the federal judges who appointed the overseers would override those findings and agree to more crowded conditions, or to end court oversight of California’s prisons.

Beard — whose appointment must still be approved by the State Senate — is not fazed by the challenge, saying he knew what he was getting into with this job. He sees great opportunity: “We can do some of the things that people would have wanted to do over the years but couldn’t do because of the population and crowding.”

Beard wants to expand programs proven to reduce the recidivism rate. He also plans to restore treatment programs that were cut back in recent years to address what he says is the large number of inmates – 70 percent on average – who suffer from some type of addiction or substance abuse. He also wants to reduce lockdowns  that restrict inmates to their cells and prevent them from participating in assistance programs.

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