Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation : Who Is Scott Kernan?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Secretary Scott Kernan

The new leader of the stressed-out, scandal-ridden California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is a former prison guard and retired 30-year veteran of the institution, returning from four years of consulting with some of its largest contractors.

Governor Jerry Brown appointed Scott Kernan, 55, secretary of the agency, replacing Jeffrey Beard, who announced a month ago he was leaving at the end of the year. 

Kernan grew up in San Quentin. His mother worked at the prison in his youth, and he spent around 10 of his formative years living on the grounds. “They have houses for employees because of the high costs here in Marin County,” he said in an interview with KALW News. “It was much like a regular place to live, the only difference was that you had to show an ID card coming and going through the gate.”   

Kernan served in the U.S. Navy from 1979 to 1982. After leaving the service, he began scaling the bureaucratic ladder of California’s state correctional institution. Kernan hired on as a prison guard at San Quentin. He was promoted to sergeant in 1985 and segued to associate budget analyst in 1986. He was bumped up to lieutenant in 1987 and captain in 1991 before becoming a correctional administrator in 2000.

Kernan was appointed chief deputy warden at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County in 2001 and warden there in 2003. He moved to California State Prison as warden in 2004 and stayed until 2006. He left to become deputy director of adult institutions. In short order, he was chief deputy secretary of adult operations in 2007 and appointed undersecretary for operations in 2008 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kernan held that post as the department’s number two man in 2009 when he was popped for drunk driving while in a state-owned car. Punishment could have included termination. He was fined $2,000. It was a hot topic in prison forums.

Kernan was an insider during tumultuous times at the department. The federal government took control of the prison system. Lawsuits began flying over healthcare, overcrowding and abuse. Sharp words were exchanged over mental health care and solitary confinement. In response to court orders, the 33-prison system shed tens of thousands of prisoners. The state was struggling to find a way to kill the inmates on Death Row that passed constitutional muster.

Problems persist.

Kernan retired in early 2011 at 90% of his salary and made a point of correcting his Chronicle interviewer that he was retiring, not resigning. “There’s a distinction in my world that’s very big!” he said, and opened Kernan Consulting. The Los Angeles Times said the firm provided services out of Kernan’s home for contractors doing business with the CDCR and that a department spokesman described him as a subcontractor.

The companies Kernan worked with were some of the CDCR’s largest contractors, according to the Times. One of them was Satellite Tracking of People (STOP), provider of the sex-offender GPS device, which became the sole contractor during Kernan’s tenure following a controversial testing process.

Kernan was rehired by the CDCR in May of this year to again become the number two guy in the department. The appointment requires confirmation by the state Senate.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Jerry Brown Taps Corrections Official to Run California Prisons (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

Gov. Jerry Brown Names New Head of State Prisons System (by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle)

Jerry Brown Taps Insider Scott Kernan as New California Prisons Chief (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Retired Prisons Official Scott Kernan on Growing Up at San Quentin (Interviewer Nancy Mullane, KALW News)

Governor Brown Appoints New California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary (Office of the California Governor)

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