More Than a Number
SF State alum heads up notorious San Quentin prison
November 29, 2004 12:26 PM
As warden Jill Brown strolled beside a row of cells at San Quentin State Prison, she spotted a line of shredded bed sheets tied together and weighted. A hand from behind the bars tossed the line out of the cell. Brown stopped in her tracks.
“What are you doing?” she said.
The inmate behind the bars said, “I’m a fisherman.”
A few seconds later, Brown confiscated the “fishing line” and asked the man,
“No,” he said.
“I’m Jill Brown,” she said. “I’m your warden.”
The prisoner’s bunkmate laughed as Brown moved on down the row of the 5th tier of the general population housing unit.
After almost six months as acting warden, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Brown to the post on November 4, leaving her in charge of more than 5,700 prisoners and the only prison in California with a death row. The 54-year-old SF State alumna is the 32nd warden at San Quentin and the second woman to hold the post.
Most of Brown’s career has been with the California Department of Corrections.
Former San Quentin warden Jeanne S. Woodford choose Brown to be acting warden when she accepted a position as director of the state corrections department.
"Selecting a warden is a comprehensive process that involves many people,” Woodford said in a written statement. “It is important to match the right person with the right institution. … (Brown) possesses commitment, is personable, and looks for collaboration among people.”
A small, self-sustaining city, the prison includes a Protestant and Catholic chapel, a fire station and various programs run by some 3,000 volunteers. It’s also a processing center for convicts from 11 Bay Area counties and houses about 500 prisoners condemned to die. Inmates as notorious as Charles Manson have been held in the prison, which is tucked against a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay and Larkspur ferry lines.
“We make decisions every day that directly impact people’s lives,” Brown said.
“And we make decisions about people’s freedom and how they’re treated while they’re in our custody…There are people to be fearful of, definitely,” Brown said. “But everyone in here is someone’s son, someone’s father, grandfather, a lot of them are. And a lot of them have just made poor choices.”
Although she had attended college years ago, Brown left without a degree to be a wife and mother. She raised a son who died at the age of 4 and continued to work in corrections. By 1991, she was ready to return to school and obtain a degree.
Brown worked as a business manager at the California Department of Education Northern Diagnostic Center – then located at Winston Drive and Lake Merced Boulevard – while she attended classes at SF State full time. She said her reprieve from corrections helped her gain a greater understanding of prison inmates.
“I saw so many behaviors in little kids that I saw in inmates,” Brown said. “It was like, whoa, we need to deal with these problems when they’re little to prevent them from going to prison.”
Her former supervisor at the diagnostic center and long-time friend Mary Anne Nielsen said Brown worked effectively in both corrections and education. Her corrections background complimented her work and she offered unique insight to the center’s staff, even correctly identifying children who would end up in jail, Nielsen said.
“It was hard for me to think of her coming from corrections because the image I had of corrections people, she didn’t fit that mold at all,” Nielsen said. “First of all, she's brilliant, and she was incredibly compassionate.”
Brown received her Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1995. Soon after, she left the center for a position at the Soledad prison facility.
“Criminals don't have horns and tails,” Nielsen said. “They look just like us and that was important for [Brown], to teach us that you have to be aware of your personal safety, because you can't spot a criminal on the street, but also that the people in the prisons are human beings…She doesn't see them as numbers,” said Nielson. “She sees them as persons and each one of them has their own personal story. That might be portrayed by some people as weak. I don't see her as weak.”
As warden, Brown said she is committed to maintaining a safe prison and providing inmates with the tools they need to prosper on the outside.
“I would like to see us get to a point where we can close a prison because people have the tools to make a positive choice and not a bad choice and go to prison,” Brown said. “If we can do something to give a guy a tool, if he can pick it up and do something with it and not come back [to prison], then we all win.”
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