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New CA prisons chief described as nerdy, politically savvy

Jeffrey Beard is Governor Brown's nominee to become the next Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Jeffrey Beard is Governor Brown's nominee to become the next Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections

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 Gov. Jerry Brown plucked his new corrections chief from the birthplace of American prisons: Pennsylvania. 

Jeffrey Beard spent nine years as head of the prisons system there before he retired in 2010. If  the California State Senate confirms him, he'll lead one of the largest prison systems in the nation, rattled by transition and mired in politics.

Beard's predecessor, Matthew Cate, left the agency in November. He said his former mentor is up to the task. The two met nearly five years ago when Cate took the top job at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabiliation (CDCR) and Beard was still at the helm of Pennsylvania's prison system.

"He came to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs in the overcrowding lawsuit," Cate said. "In his opinion, it was impossible to run an effective corrections system at 200 percent capacity. He did that without pay, because he really believed California needed relief from overcrowding." 

Beard impressed Cate. The two spoke often, and after Beard retired, Cate hired him as a consultant on mental health issues in California's prisons. 

"Now he'll be leading the same system he criticized," Cate said. "I think the governor made the right choice."

Cate's parting advice?

"Try to learn the politics of California as quickly as possible," he said. "Get to know the stakeholders. But secondly, I'd tell him he has a great staff, and they'll be able to help him implement his vision."

Choice is praised

Don Specter, head of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and lead attorney on the prison overcrowding case, also praised the choice. 

Specter told member station KQED in San Francisco that Beard's ability to launch a solid rehabilitation system in Pennsylvania's prisons impressed him . Mostly, he said, he's excited about change.

"I think it’s important to get new perspectives," Specter said. "That’s something that’s been lacking in California prisons for decades. I think it’s terrific that we will have somebody from the outside to bring in some new ideas and move California into the mainstream of what other systems in the country are doing.” 

Cate and Specter said they hope reducing the use of lockdowns will be at the top of Beard's priority list. Lockdowns, largely linked to overcrowding, are a security tool. It restricts inmates to their cells for days without the ability to take recreation time or attend programs. Cate said he regrets not making more progress on that issue, and he hopes Beard will. 

Beard has not consented to interviews since his appointment, but former colleagues back in Pennsylvania offer  insights into his demeanor and philosophy.

The resulting portrait: a solid administrator, a political mediator and a bit of a nerd. 

"He supported evidence-based programs for offenders, that was his big thing," said Doris MacKenzie, director of the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University, where Beard spent the last year-and-a-half as a professor. "The programs they initiated in the prisons were research-based and he kept in close contact with all the researchers so he knew what was going on."

He was also good at working with politicians in what MacKenzie described as a "conservative" state. 

"He's worked with tight budget problems and has been able to get compromise," she said.

William DiMascio directs the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an inmate  advocacy group in Philadelphia. He described Beard as "a very intelligent guy" and "highly ethical." DiMascio said that Beard was not liberal enough for most prison reformers, but that he was largely an administrator, bound by the decisions of policymakers.

DiMascio said Beard, a psychologist, was always particularly concerned with making sure families could visit with relatives on the inside. He intiated one of the first video conferencing visitation programs in the country. 

Those who know him said Beard, now 65, is an energetic man who likely took the position to see whether he might put his expertise in management and evidence-based corrections to improving one of the most notoriously difficult-to-manage systems in the country.