Senate backs Brown's choice for prison secretary

Inmate Jeremy Beasley in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison. Beasley spent nearly 15 years in the special security unit.
Inmate Jeremy Beasley in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison. Beasley spent nearly 15 years in the special security unit. Singeli Agnew/CIR

The state Senate on Thursday confirmed Gov. Jerry Brown's choice to lead California's troubled prison system on the same day that a new challenge arose from a federal judge.

Hours after Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, 66, was confirmed on a 23-6 vote, a judge said there is far more work that needs to be done to improve the treatment of mentally ill inmates in state prisons.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento ordered his court-appointed special master to review practices at prison mental health facilities operated by the Department of State Hospitals.

The department is responsible for treating inmates at some of California's prisons, including one in Soledad that inmate advocates say is poorly staffed and provides substandard care.

Witnesses at a hearing last month testified that officials at Salinas Valley State Prison should have done more to prevent the deaths of two inmates with known histories of trying to harm themselves.

Karlton ordered the special master and his team to also monitor Department of State Hospital programs at five other prisons.

The decision was the latest blow to Brown's attempts to end federal oversight of prison medical and mental health care. Karlton ruled in April against the Democratic governor's bid to end court oversight of mental health programs.

"Given the gravity of the evidence in this hearing, the defendants' previous motion to terminate takes on the character of a condition in which the defendants have simply divorced themselves from reality," Karlton scolded Thursday in his 14-page order.

He cited "significant and troubling evidence of...severe staffing shortages...denial of basic necessities including clean underwear, failure to follow established timelines for transfer of patients to inpatient care, and perhaps premature discharges of patients from inpatient care, all of which call into question the adequacy of the inpatient care...."

The new ruling came as Beard is under court order to free nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates, unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a lower court order.

He also must transfer about 2,600 inmates from two Central Valley prisons because they are particularly vulnerable to a fungus that originates in the soil and causes a potentially fatal disease known as valley fever.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said the corrections is in crisis and she supported Beard's appointment because of his experience as the reform-minded head of Pennsylvania's corrections system for nine years before he came to California.

Republicans objected to Beard's confirmation because of the prison system's ongoing shift in sentencing thousands of lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons to ease crowding. Though that law was passed before Beard's appointment to the $225,000-a-year job in December, he is carrying out the law that "continues the darkness of risk to our families," said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.

Beard is also trying to manage a mass protest in which nearly 30,000 inmates have refused meals this week to support better conditions for gang leaders held in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison and three other maximum security prisons.

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