Ronald J. Broomfield, warden of San Quentin, sees himself as a “hands on” administrator.
He likes to interact with the population. The warden recently walked across San Quentin’s Lower Yard to the prison’s Media Center to be interviewed by Humans of San Quentin and San Quentin News.
San Quentin News (SQN): You chose to talk about George Washington Carver at the June 24 Mount Tamalpais College Graduation. Why?
Ronald J. Broomfield (RJB): The thing I love about George Washington Carver is he overcame incredible adversity, and we all know that everyone in here is dealing with adversity … You all face tremendous amounts of adversity that you’re trying to overcome. He was a perfect example of a man who has faced incredible adversity. So, I thought he was an inspiring historical figure.
What I personally like about George Washington Carver is here’s a man whose family was destroyed by the system — racism everywhere he turned — to get accepted to college and then get kicked out because they didn’t know the color of [his] skin until the day [he] showed up. Wow, to persevere through that is absolutely amazing. He never became bitter.
I don’t think I shared this too much in the speech, but this is a man who had every reason to be bitter, to resent the system, to hate people for what they’ve done to him, and he never did that. He was a quiet advocate for his people, for the Black Southern farmers that he was trying to educate and lift up. And, he did it with grace and he was effective. He really, really changed many, many lives through his quiet determination. And he was a genius — this man was an absolute genius and he’d dig deep. He had a good heart for people, so he was able to have the respect of all different social groups — politicians, inventors, the scientists, the students, Black, White. He was able to cross over all kinds of lines because of the grace in which he pursued his life.
SQN: What were the parallels from your own life that drew you to this?
RJB: I like the way he dealt with people. I like the way he interacted with people, all different kinds of people, and that’s what I try to do. I talk to the population the same way I talk to my boss, the same way I talk to my team. And as long as I’m not in a confrontational situation, I try and treat everybody the same. Like they’re human beings who have goals and dreams and struggles, just like myself. Yeah, so the connection to Carver is the grace in which he carried himself — it was absolutely amazing.
SQN: San Quentin’s demographics are changing, with non-designated status for the incarcerated population, gender identity, EOP, etc. What kind of training is your staff getting on how to interact with these individuals?
RJB: There is a lot of training during the annual PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] training that includes the LGBTQ community needs and challenges and risks that they experience. So, there is training; I think our department is becoming more and more focused on what I would call the humanities. We know how to incarcerate. We know how to run prisons. But we can always do better in the treatment of people, and I think the department is really starting to emphasize that. So, I think the department on a whole is in a really good place as a leader in that area. I mean it’s a stressful environment, right? Prison is stressful, by nature. So, there’s always work to be done in the treatment of people, how we interact with people. But, I think we’re headed in the right direction.
SQN: How important is it for the staff to communicate effectively with the incarcerated population?
RJB: I honestly believe that if you spend 20 minutes in getting to know somebody, you won’t be able to treat them the same, because you’ll know more about them and you’ll gain some insight into what makes them tick. So, I do think communication is the key — it’s not a cliché. It’s critical to success — to running a successful prison, successful community, successful family — communication is always in the middle, the heart of it.
SQN: Do you think San Quentin will be able to go back to the way it was prior to COVID-19 — having events with district attorneys, senators, and teachers? Do you think we could get back to that environment?
RJB: I’m not going to predict the future, but I can definitely say this — the desire to be there, to be that way, has never gone away, has never left San Quentin. I think that everyone that works in San Quentin knows that San Quentin is a special place. So, it’s absolutely my desire to bring back all the rehabilitative programs, the volunteer programs, the things where there’s hope in the incarcerated population.
The unfortunate result of the pandemic is that we had roughly two and a half years where none of these volunteer programs were functioning. So when we opened back up, the infrastructure is not there for all these volunteer programs. So, to the extent that they could get organized and come back in, they’re welcomed to come back in. When? How robust? I can’t call it.
We’ve opened and closed several times; we get some momentum. The first time we were opened up, I was excited about the food sale. We finally got out there and we did some cool stuff and I think we closed two days later. And then we opened back up and we were able to pull off the graduation. But, I was nervous the day before the graduation that we were going to have to close back down because there’s public health guidance that dictates when we can stay open and when we have close down. So, we’re still very much dealing with COVID-19, even though thankfully no one’s dying of COVID-19 at San Quentin [anymore]. So, to predict that future, I can’t really predict it. But, I can tell you that everyone that works for me advocates for programs — in my leadership team.
SQN: What would you tell a person who knows nothing about incarcerated people or how prisons operate? Please connect that to your thoughts on redemption from your professional experience as a warden.
RJB: There’s a certain percentage of that population that are going to come to prison and walk out the same person that they came in. Then, there is another percentage that’s going to come in, and whether they say this is my rock bottom or they say I can’t keep living like this, and they’re going to start taking advantage to some of the opportunities at San Quentin. They’re going to enroll in education and drug treatment and take some of the LTAGs [self-help programs] that help [them] to re-imagine [their] way of thinking, and they’re going to walk out changed.
Everybody has potential. It’s just a matter of them taking advantage of that potential. So, I try and treat everybody in the incarcerated population as if they have tremendous potential. And then when you hang out, like in the graduation, you see it. You see men and women realizing their potential and it’s exciting — it’s exciting and that’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s the thing that’s makes working in an institution a positive experience.
SQN: How do you discern between the groups that you described as taking advantage of programs and those that do not?
RJB: I think that [discernment] comes with some experience. A wise friend of mine once said, “believe the best in people and I try to live that every day.” If I don’t believe in the best, my attitude and actions are going to reflect that … It’s not my business to judge people, but discernment comes with experience.
I’ve worked in a level four. So, I’ve seen the worse behavior and then I come to San Quentin and I see this incredible behavior. I try not to put people in camps — like they’re in this camp and this camp. I hope everybody moves over to this side [and] wants to make the most of this opportunity [to] change [their] life. That’s the best answer that I can give you.
SQN: Environment and opportunity plays an important role in a person’s life. What are your thoughts on that?
RJB: We all come from different socio-economic backgrounds; we come from different traumas in our personal lives as children. Some of us had healthy parents. Some of us had very unhealthy parents. Some of us got a good education. Some of us didn’t get a good education. Some of us went to the streets to find community, and some of us found community in our families and our schools. So, I try not to judge how a person got here. That’s not my job. It’s my job to make sure the opportunities are here. If there’s no opportunity — no hope — we’ll just wither on the vine.
Broomfield says he sees “San Quentin as an entire community.”
He considers himself “the warden for the custody staff, the healthcare staff, the non-sworn [civilian] support staff and the incarcerated population. San Quentin [is] my people.”
Therefore, he says he gives his best to all staff. He emphasized the institution’s “under-staffed food service,” noting that, “There is tremendous stress on those people. I try to give my best to them.”
Broomfield says he wants to “provide a little inspiration and little bit of hope and little bit of humanity. I think that if every single person tried to provide a little bit of hope, this environment would change pretty rapidly. We’ve just taken very different paths and we’ve arrived here together in different ways.”
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted via video by Edwin E. Chavez and Miguel Sifuentes on June 27. It was transcribed by Senior Editor Juan Haines. Its content has been edited for clarity and ease of reading.