Beard’s decade-long stint as Pennsylvania’s Corrections Secretary saw a dramatic increase in that state’s prison population, from 38,000 in 2001 to more than 51,300 by 2010. His actions mirrored the same type of expansionist tough-on-crime approach that eventually brought California’s prison system to its knees under a federal court order due to unconstitutional overcrowding. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].
When faced with overcrowding in Pennsylvania, Beard chose not to advocate for prison reforms; rather, he shipped thousands of prisoners to privately-operated facilities in Michigan and Virginia while asking the state legislature for hundreds of millions of dollars to build three new prisons.
In 2000, Beard opened Long Term Segregation Units in the Pennsylvania DOC – the most restrictive form of isolation – closely modeled on the Security Housing Units at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Just one year after Beard left the Pennsylvania DOC, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into allegations of abuse at the SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Cresson state prisons.
The DOJ announced it was addressing claims that the facilities “provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation” – similar failings that led to federal court oversight in California. Beard, who is also a psychologist, should have known the importance of providing adequate mental health care to prisoners, as well as the mental health effects of long-term solitary confinement.
Bret Grote, an investigator with the Pennsylvania-based Human Rights Coalition, noted that ongoing isolation policies began during Beard’s tenure and paralleled his expansion of the state’s prison system. Grote alleged that he had documented “hundreds upon hundreds of human rights violations” related to prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons.
Another critic of Beard’s policies, attorney Angus Love, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said he frequently “butted heads” with Beard over the use of solitary confinement, particularly as to the “atmosphere” inside the prison system that allowed abuses to occur.
Alarm bells also sounded from Dan Berger, a prison historian at the University of Washington, who sharply criticized Beard’s record on prison expansion, overcrowding and solitary confinement. Berger opined that by hiring Beard, Governor Brown had signaled his unwillingness to pull back from California’s decades of inaction on its prison crisis.
But Brown defended Beard. “The new secretary has just the experience California needs,” the governor stated. “He’s been a prison warden, led the correctional system in Pennsylvania, and more recently participated in the federal oversight of California’s prisons, visiting the majority of our institutions. In the face of a plethora of federal court decisions and the bold realignment enacted by the legislature, Jeff Beard has arrived at the right time to take the next steps in returning California’s parole and correctional institutions to their former luster.”
However, Beard’s early comments indicated a resistance to complying with the federal court’s CDCR population reduction mandate. He told the Associated Press in January 2013 that “any further federally-ordered reduction of the California prison population is unnecessary and a threat to public safety.”
He further said the CDCR had cut its prisoner population by nearly 46,000 since 2006 while improving medical and mental health care. Because state prisoners convicted of less serious crimes are now placed in county jails under California’s new realignment program, only serious, violent and sex offenders go to state prisons. That makes it more difficult to identify remaining prisoners who can be released safely, Beard stated.
Attorneys representing California prisoners in the ongoing class-action overcrowding lawsuit argued that the CDCR still fails to provide adequate health care and that many prisoners still held in state prisons could be released without endangering the public. While conditions have arguably improved, they said, prisoners still die due to medical neglect.
The numbers continue to tell a sad story. California’s incarceration rate is 595 per 100,000 adults in state prison – the eighteenth highest rate in the nation, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Fighting the federal court-ordered prison population reduction, as Beard has announced, casts him in the same stiff-necked role that characterized the buildup of Pennsylvania’s prison population during his tenure as Corrections Secretary in that state – which does not bode well for the future of California’s penal system.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, www.ppic.org, www.ivn.us
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