Former San Quentin Warden Jill Brown’s career allowed her to reinvent herself many times. In the process, she helped to improve the lives of inmates through rehabilitation.
Brown started her career working at a state hospital. She later found her way to what was then the California Department of Corrections in San Francisco as a regional parole officer. She became a sergeant at San Quentin for a few years in the 1980s but didn’t wear a uniform.
Brown holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with an emphasis in human resource management from San Francisco State University.
“I pretty much started my career in business services,” said Brown. “It was very early in business services so the position wasn’t established.”
Brown rose to rank of associate warden in Soledad, where she worked on two different occasions, one of which involved solving labor, personnel and contract matters. From there she was promoted to correctional administrator and chief deputy warden.
Brown said she was fortunate working in a male-dominated culture, where the potential for discrimination and prejudice sometimes creates a hostile work environment for women.
“There were a lot of strong women who blazed that trail for me,” said Brown. “I never experienced any harassment.” She did, however, admit there were attitudes. “I think it depends on what prison you’re at.” She said remote prisons take a little longer to change opinions about women and other minorities, but it’s not widespread, “and definitely not condoned by the administration.”
Some men, not all of them, she said held to their biases. By the time she was in place, many of those issues that some male staff had toward women working in corrections had disappeared.
According to Brown, there was a time when women weren’t allowed to walk the yard unescorted at San Quentin. “It was more reflective of society as a whole,” she said. “As society evolves, we tend to see the same things happening” with corrections.
“They didn’t have to figure out how to work with me,” said Brown. It was how they acted that she says made it clear they wanted her there.
Reflecting on her time at San Quentin, Brown said as an institution it’s able to get a lot done because of its many programs offered to inmates. While working at Soledad, she said inmates begged for transfer to San Quentin.
“At Soledad we didn’t even know how to spell the word ‘program,’” said Brown. She explained that at the time there were few rehabilitative opportunities beyond Alcoholics Anonymous, religion and substance abuse treatment so that made it hard for prisoners.
“I retired at the end of 2007,” said Brown. She now works on different projects like reentry hubs, changes to inmate classification and the inmate credit-earning program. “It’s like a labor of love for me.”
In the past three years, Brown has worked managing CDCR’s Innovative Grants Program. She said the department gives grants to volunteer organizations that go inside prisons to work with inmates’ rehabilitation.
The Last Mile program is funded to operate at Ironwood State Prison, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, California Institution for Women and Folsom Women’s Facility. Veterans groups and GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) are some of the other programs that will receive grant funding. “This gives them seed money,” said Brown.
There are 40 to 43 programs funded at 17 prisons around the state, said Brown. Soon there will be 106 programs at 29 prisons. Grants will provide inmates around the state with better opportunity for rehabilitation and shorten the “have and have not disparity” between prisons with “embarrassing amounts of riches” and those with little, she said.
Brown said CDCR has to carry out court sentences and provide every person with a way not to come back to prison. “If even half could figure out how not to come back, it would be positive.”
“San Quentin to me is a wonderful place,” said Brown. “If you have to be in prison, San Quentin is the place. It helps when you start off with support for programs.”
“From where I sit, (Warden Ron Davis) is really supportive of programs,” said Brown. “Some things will work at a level-two (prison) that’ll never work at a level-four.” San Quentin is a level-two prison.
Brown also works with Soroptimist, a nonprofit organization operating in Marin County. “It’s a coined word meaning the best for women and girls,” said Brown. “We do scholarships for young women going to college.” The organization also provides services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.
“I keep dropping by San Quentin,” said Brown. “Seeing graduations take place inside the prison is a good feeling. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another thing being there seeing it. I feel fortunate. San Quentin will always have a special place in my heart and in my life.”