Politics & Law

Beard must go: California needs a fresh start in corrections, not a cover-up for business as usual

Jonathan Simon

When Governor Brown appointed Jeffrey Beard to be the new Secretary of Corrections in California last year, it was supposed to signal a new era.  After decades of Correctional leaders who were insiders, brought up in a system that had normalized a state of permanent crisis and systemic inhumanity, Mr. Beard looked to be reason for hope; a respected correctional leader from a State without such a disgraceful record and indeed, an outside expert who had provided testimony against California in the landmark Brown v. Plata case.

Jeffrey Beard

Jeffrey Beard (CDCR photo)

Unfortunately, Secretary Beard’s public statements since coming to the job reflect a complete failure to acknowledge the gravity of the human rights abuses his agency is guilty of and an apparent commitment to defend the status quo at any cost.  Recent examples include his petulant refusal to take seriously the danger posed by Valley Fever to vulnerable inmates (this in a system that the US Supreme Court castigated for its “deliberate indifference” to the medical care of prisoners for decades) and his fear mongering on the consequences of complying with the federal courts population cap.

Now his public statements demonizing the hunger strikers and defending California’s indefensible SHUs (their terminology for total lockdown isolation prisons, known generically as supermax) make clear that all hope for change in this administration should be abandoned.  Its time for a protest movement and direct action campaign to force real change starting with Secretary Beard’s resignation.

Secretary Beard’s recent LA Times Op-ed piece trashing the hunger strikers and defending the SHU is a perfect example.  As major human rights organizations have established (read the Amnesty International report here), California’s super isolation facilities are an outlier in a country that is already a global outlier in its reliance on these inhuman prisons.  While in most states that use supermax prisons, prisoners are there for specific acts of criminal violence, and for a limited period of time, California uses its SHU mostly for prisoners suspected of being members of prison gang, and keeps prisoner there indefinitely.  As a result scores of prisoners have been held in the SHU for decades (far longer than any Guantanamo prisoners).

I have written before about the Orwellian quality of California’s “gang problem.”  Having long ago abandoned any effort to offer meaningful work, education, or rehabilitative treatment in its insanely large and overcrowded prisons, the creation of a gang system to provide some level of predictable order was inevitable, and must be seen as a defacto public policy of California (and indeed there is plenty of empirical evidence of the system’s complicity in organizing and sustaining the racially defined gangs).

Secretary Beard is not responsible for this situation, but instead of working to change it he appears to be committed to defending the status quo.  His Op-Ed piece is full of alarming claims about the murderous behavior of the “gang leaders” who are supposed forcing the strike on others, but CDCR denies journalists and external experts access to the prisoners so we have to rely completely on Secretary Beard for the veracity of claims that conveniently fit his interest in ending the strike and the public attention it has brought.

Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.

Really, I thought the whole justification for the SHU was to prevent these leaders from terrorizing and pressuring other prisoners.  If they can force inmates who are locked down 23 hours a day to deny themselves food, what exactly is the SHU supposed to be accomplishing?

For decades, California has had the most violent and sophisticated prison gangs in the nation. When gang violence exploded during the 1970s and 1980s, and crime rates around the state rose to record highs, state prisons felt the impact. Between 1970 and 1973, 11 employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were slain by inmates, and many others were brutally assaulted.

This is internally contradictory.  The violent explosion took place between 1970 and 1973, more than a decade before the first California SHU was opened.  By then violence (much of it related to the political struggles across the country in the early 1970s) had largely abated.  As plenty of evidence suggests, the SHU was really created to help justify and manage California’s mass incarceration juggernaut.  There is no public evidence linking California crime rates with internal gang activity in prisons.  If Secretary Beard has the statistics to prove this he should publish it.

After this turbulent and violent time, and in response to the growing threat of gangs, the corrections department created SHUs to safely house gang members and their associates while minimizing their influence on other prisoners. Restricting the gangs’ communication has limited their ability to engage in organized criminal activity and has saved lives both inside and outside prison walls.

Huh? Again, if the SHU works, how is it that these gang leaders can manipulate prisoners throughout the state.  If it doesn’t work, why are you defending it?

There are SHUs at four prisons in California. At three of them — in Tehachapi, Corcoran and Folsom — there are outdoor-facing windows in the cells that allow for direct sunlight. At Pelican Bay, all SHU cells have skylights. In all of the facilities, inmates in the SHU have radios and color TVs with access to channels such as ESPN. They have weekly access to a law library and daily exercise time. 

Please, being locked in a closet 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 10, 20, or 30 years is ok because you have a skylight, and access to ESPN?  If you doubt that, try spending a weekend locked in your bathroom accompanied by a radio and a color TV.  I’m sure the access to television and radio does mitigate the isolation, but only to a point.  Indeed Amnesty International was well aware that California SHU inmates can purchase a television (see page 24 of their report) and still condemned the SHU in unambiguous terms:

Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment. The cumulative effects of such conditions, particularly when imposed for prolonged or indefinite periods, and the severe environmental deprivation in Pelican Bay SHU, in particular, amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law.

If you doubt that, try spending a week locked in your bathroom accompanied by a radio and a color TV.

Even so, we remain committed to improving our facilities and policies. The department has brought in outside experts to evaluate our gang-management strategies. Based on their recommendations, we implemented a new comprehensive gang-management strategy last fall.

And why should anyone believe you when you are willing to manipulate facts and demonize people who are risking their own lives to demand some recognition of their humanity?

So what is this really about? Some of the men who participated in the last hunger strike have since dropped out of the gangs for religious or personal reasons, and they said it best in recently filed court declarations. “Honestly, we did not care about human rights,” one inmate said about the 2011 hunger strike. “The objective was to get into the general population, or mainline, and start running our street regiments again.” Another described the hunger strike this way: “We knew we could tap big time support through this tactic, but we weren’t trying to improve the conditions in the SHU; we were trying to get out of the SHU to further our gang agenda on the mainline.”

How convenient that they are saying things that exactly fit your narrative that SHU prisoners are craven manipulative terrorists.  Where is the objective evidence that anyone actually made these statements?  No one else has regular access to these prisoners and you and your staff have zero credibility when it comes to determining why prisoners would engage in a strike that is directly challenging a policy you remain deeply committed to.  Let the strikers hold a press conference, or give the media individual access to any SHU prisoner they want to speak with, and then we’ll see.

The leaders of these four gangs are directly responsible for at least five ruthless murders, 35 violent assaults, including stabbings, and they have racked up more than two dozen violations for possession of weapons and other contraband.

Who are we talking about?  California has thousands of people locked up in the SHUs.  Are they all responsible for these murders?  If there is evidence that people have killed others or even engaged in weapons and drug smuggling, why isn’t SHU placement based on those kinds of charges rather than the Orwellian charge of being a “gang associate.”

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "Beard must go: California needs a fresh start in corrections, not a cover-up for business as usual":
    • B Cayenne Bird

      All these prison guards in the news forums wishing death on hundreds of prisoners sickens me to the depths of my being. How can anyone not see the inmates are truly being tortured by these criminals wearing badges and sitting in elected office after such comments are made in public forums?

      Homicidal maniacs work for the mafia-like CDCr/CCPOA. Read what they say in their comments to see the real under belly of a corrupt and broken criminal justice system. Wait until they or a precious loved one are caught up in it. No one is safe. When will people get out of denial?

      Three million people related to a CA State Prisoner or someone on parole could vote Brown out and put in someone who hasn’t sold their soul to CCPOA.

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    • waltinseattle

      thanks for this truly rational and well laid out article, combining hard facts, a full timeline and even some proper use of human emotionality for the good cause- humanity for all- ! how refreshing from the selective fear based agenda that pass as objectivity.

      So when will we see a real investigation by outside parties like Amnesty? When will the federal authorities quit waiting for the Cal incarceration complex to open up voluntarily? In an era when police can serve a “no knock” and knock down the door to enter….why are the public facilities, these prisons, exempt from having others look under the hood? Are they too big to question?

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    • CA Prison "Guard"

      The author of this piece clearly doesn’t get it. I work inside the walls. I see it all first-hand. Dr. Beard is dead on right about everything in his editorial. But, it seems you are already convinced by all of the lies put out by leftist anti-prison groups. I guess it will take the lost lives of many inmates and staff when they are forced shut down the SHU and let out the gang leaders due to political pressure. And when the violence goes up and trickles out into the streets due to this AB109 realignment B.S., you won’t be able to say that men like Dr. Beard didn’t warn you it was coming.

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    • Dr. Nancy Arvold, PhD

      I am totally in support of the need to remove Beard from his position. His appointment did usher in a new (and WORSE) era. I am a psychologist, as I believe he is. As a professional – I understand he is a psychologist – his words and position and his misuse of his power – has no integrity – there is no excuse for him – either he is ignorant of the facts – or he is aware and lying – either way – he should be stopped. What that will require, I don’t know, but I do think we need to mount a campaign.

      Yes, Brown is equally at fault, but Beard is engaged in the immediacy of what is happening and the conditions in the prisons, and has no excuse. The lies and propaganda that is being given the public so that they do not become naturally sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners (who are willing to be responsible for the crimes they DID commit, but are only demanding DECENT CONDITIONS AND JUST TREATMENT).

      The men who are fighting this injustice are both courageous and committed, and as I know from conversations with some of the prisoners, have turned their lives around from the days of their youth when they committed whatever acts they did (many of which were NOT violent, but drug related, as is so common.)

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    • Galeus Canis

      I hope this letter went much further than a blog… put it on every major press page and send it personally to those who need to hear the truth, both sides.

      Beard and Brown are cowardly in their refusal to be humanistic.

      [Report abuse]

    • Nina Courtney

      Gov Brown’s continuous and blatant disregard for the ninth circuit court, California Supreme court, and U.S.’s Supreme court’s orders of decreasing prison population is mind boggling. The Governor doesn’t want to be viewed as “soft on crime”. Instead he spends millions of tax dollars fighting the court’s orders and findings.

      Our prisons are a disgrace to this state and nation and one reason is because 100% of our elected officials have never set foot in a prison or county jail without an escort. The training to become a prison guard is dismal and the pay scale is obscene.

      Our prisons are over crowded because sentencing structures have been polluted with mandatory minimums and determinant sentencing, leaving the courtroom judge with no discretion in determining their decisions. Couple this with the evolution of private prisons whose sole purpose is to fill with prisoners so that the CEO’S make big salaries, I have to believe this is all done to make money for all the wrong people.

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    • B Cayenne Bird

      Bravo Professor Simon! I would like to add that Jerry Brown is equally at fault. He is the person responsible for passing the determinate sentencing laws when he was Gov the first time that resulted in the humanitarian crisis that now exists.

      He did everything in his power as Attorney General to fight the 9th District Court Orders and still refuses to release people per the Supreme Court mandate. The SHU prisoners are often inmate lawyers and people who dared to file a complaint on the bully prison guards. The mentally ill are also locked away for acting out their illness which makes them much worse.

      We need a Gov. who is not a shill for CCPOA and other law enforcement labor unions. Someone who would retry all cases with a three year or more sentence so that we can get this mafia-like organization off our backs. Thank you for speaking out.

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    • pacific

      They also had their yard taken off them and the reason given was those that strike deserve no yard and anyone who participates in hunger strike gets punished by having visitations behind glass cancelled and since they cant have phone calls they cant tell families not to visit. They also get tv taken away for 30 days or cant buy any extra food and thats all because they participated in mass disruption as the prison claims

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    • Dawn Wolfson

      Thank you for debunking Mr. Beard’s claims. This situation requires an investigation, not a lot of bluster and lies. Agreed, most of these guys are not model citizens, but there are international standards of humane treatment that we are violating.

      [Report abuse]

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