After a partisan debate in which Republicans criticized Gov. Jerry Brown's nominee to run the state's prisons and Democrats praised him as the best man for the job, the California Senate voted Thursday to confirm Jeffrey Beard as secretary of the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The move comes as nearly 29,000 prisoners are holding a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates at two San Joaquin Valley prisons are getting sick with valley fever and officials are dealing with reports of prison doctors sterilizing female inmates in violation of prison rules.
"We know that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is an institution in crisis, both long term and short term," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.
"We have the highest recidivism rate in the country," she said, and "we have been unable to provide adequate programming to give opportunities for rehabilitation to the inmates in our prisons. The overpopulation in our prisons has led the United States Supreme Court to say that the conditions under which we confine people are cruel and unusual punishment and are against the Constitution."
Hancock said Beard, who was named to the post in December, could take on those challenges because he is committed to "enlightened reform" of the state's prisons.
California's 33 state prisons are under a federal court order to reduce the inmate population and provide better health care. That order led the state to shift many inmates from state prisons to county jails and parole offices.
That effort, known as realignment, has been widely criticized by Republicans as a threat to public safety.
Republican senators argued that Beard is not fit for the job because he criticized California's management of its prisons during the lawsuit that led to the order to shrink the inmate population.
"Beard has a credibility and conflict problem," said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. "He was a key witness for the plaintiffs in this massive lawsuit related to the health care and crowding in California (prisons)." Beard's appointment was approved by 23 Democrats and opposed by six Republicans. Nine senators did not vote.
Beard comes to California after decades in the Pennsylvania state prison system, including positions as corrections counselor, superintendent and executive deputy secretary.
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.