Beard, who at the time was secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, testified in 2008 that he considered 3,300 inmates to be the upper limit for a manageable prison. California prisons still house an average of 3,600 inmates, although Beard said he didn't realize then that California subdivides its prisons into smaller and more manageable units.
Four years ago, he cited California prisons' high suicide rate as one indication of a dangerously crowded system.
Now Beard argues that a federal court also should end its oversight of mental health care, even though a court-appointed special master reported last week that inmates are dying by suicide at the rate of one every 11 days, substantially exceeding the national average for state prisons.
Prison officials have taken steps to prevent suicides and get swifter treatment for seriously mentally ill inmates. Many of the remaining problems, Beard argued, are in meeting bureaucratic standards.
Beard was a member of an expert panel that in 2007 advised California prison officials on ways to improve prison and parole programs. He said he had no interest in becoming secretary then because the system was so crowded it could not adopt many of the experts' recommendations.
"I saw this big system that back in the 1970s used to be at the pinnacle of corrections. ... And then you saw what happened to the system based on the severe overcrowding," he said. "Things suffered."
The prison crowding resulted, in part, from numerous tough-on-crime sentencing laws, many of them approved by voters, that were implemented without any way to pay for the space needed to house the additional convicts.
The federal court order applies to the state's 33 adult prisons, which now hold about 119,000 inmates, down from 153,000 four years ago. The level set by the judges would cap the population at about 110,000 inmates.
Thousands more are in firefighting camps and private prisons, including nearly 9,000 in private prisons in other states. Brown plans to bring those out-of-state inmates back to California prisons starting in July.
Beard recalled testifying about the state's "lack of political will" to reform, until the courts forced improvements. That means the department now can revive rehabilitation programs that largely died because of crowding and budget cuts, he said.
He also hopes to deal with the department's frequent practice of locking inmates in their cells for weeks at a time after fights between inmates.
"Now there's a way to make a difference," he said.