Unlocking History

Warden Pulley guided two prisons through tumultuous times

Photo of a man superimposed over San Quentin State Prison.
Reginald Pulley was the first black man to head a maximum security prison in California when he was named San Quentin's warden in 1982. Pulley tried to bring reforms to the prison, including more family connections. (CDCR file photos.)

In honor of Black History Month, Inside CDCR takes a closer look at Reginald Pulley, a longtime department employee.

The contributions and achievements of black employees and volunteers in California prisons have helped shaped today’s CDCR.

“If you don’t know your history, where you come from, you don’t know how you’re going to go forward.”

Reginald Pulley, retired warden

Need for staff diversity

In 1942, Warden Clinton Duffy raised eyebrows when he hired the first black correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison. Despite that groundbreaking move, it still took decades for institutions to follow his lead. Nearly 30 years later, in the 1970s, the department implemented more diverse hiring practices.

Reports in the early 1970s showed only 26% of correctional officers were younger than 34 and only 8% were black.

In 1971, the U.S. House Committee on Judicial Affairs brought the disparity into into the spotlight while investigating racial diversity in the prison workforce. A parolee, 15 months out of prison, testified why it was important for the U.S. prison system to change its ways.

“I was in California Men’s Colony East (and) there is not one black guard, not one. There is not one black person we can go to, sergeant or lieutenant or program administrator or warden, that we can talk about black things. We can’t do these things in prison,” testified Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson, a prison reform advocate.

He also criticized the lack of black correctional officers in Folsom Prison, claiming there were only six employed there at any given time.

“I feel that there should be black lieutenants, captains, parole administrators, sergeants in every institution in California,” he testified.

Jackson had served 19 years in five different institutions during his lifetime.

Man in tan suit and tie sits at a desk with the seal of California logo behind him.
Reginald Pulley worked for the state in the parole division, as an institutional correctional administrator and later as warden. (CDCR file photo.)

Pulley goes from county counselor to parole agent

Reginald Pulley began his correctional career at the county level.

“I started in the juvenile hall in Los Angeles County as a counselor and deputy probation officer. Then I decided to go to the state level,” he recalled during a speaking engagement at Fairhaven College, Jan. 25, 2012.

“I was running a halfway house for the parole division and was very happy (in the 1970s). I saw that as rehab, the way out, giving support to inmates and prisoners who were coming to the Los Angeles area,” he said. “Then one day the director walked up and decided I was a better candidate for managing or administrating a prison. I rejected his offer for three years because the halfway house was one of the prime reasons I felt I could make change in the department. Eventually he told me my paycheck was waiting for me at Soledad, meaning I had no choice.”

He became program administrator for the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) at Soledad. At the time, CTF was in the middle of a violent period.

“The director sent me there because the inmates had seen no black person in charge of anything. There were black people working at Soledad as groundskeepers, engineers (and counselors) but nobody black ran anything,” he recalled.

Eventually after a stint with the Board of Parole Terms, he returned to Soledad as a deputy warden.

“Now, Soledad had programs — school, trade, outside involvement, you could get college degrees. You could do the kinds of things I felt was beginning a rehabilitation,” he said.

From 1977 to 1980, he served as deputy warden at San Quentin, under the new warden who had been appointed from the CTF post.

“At the time we were having riots in the cities. We were having blacks against whites,” he said. “We have the same problems in our prisons that we have in our communities. We don’t talk to each other. We segregate ourselves and we become isolated.”

San Quentin and Folsom were the two maximum security prisons in the state.

San Quentin gets new warden

Black prison warden Reginald Pulley walks in San Quentin State Prison.
New Warden Reginald Pulley walks the grounds at San Quentin. (Photo: Ebony Magazine, 1982.)

In 1982, 55-year-old Pulley became the “first black person to be named head of a maximum security prison in California” when he was appointed as warden at San Quentin, according to news reports at the time. The longtime department veteran believed prevention and intervention were the keys to lowering crime.

“We must do something about crime in the U.S. before (people end up in) prison,” he said. “We must pay more attention to our youth. (Prison is) the tail end of the operation here of the whole law enforcement system.”

The warden said he was open to new ideas.

“Changes are taking place at SQ which are necessary. There is always a need for constructive change, but there are alternate ways to go about changing. I encourage feedback from the inmates; they’ll find that I’m receptive to their concerns,” he told the San Quentin News, Feb. 26, 1982.

Pulley pushed for rehabilitative job-training programs involving outside businesses.

“I’m insisting that there are going to be viable programs so you have the opportunity to improve your lives,” he told the inmates, quoted in Ebony Magazine, June 1982. “I’m not going to perpetuate frustration here.”

He also urged prison staff to remember who was in their custody.

“These people are worth something. They have families and children who love them,” he said. He vowed to do everything he could to help them dig their way out “of their immediate problem of being here and living in prison.”

New assignment and retirement

By 1985, Pulley was tasked with being the first warden, known then as superintendent, for the new R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) in San Diego.

“We are your neighbors,” Pulley told a gathering in Chula Vista. The facility was still under construction.

“The inmates will be able to get junior college credits (through courses at the prison),” he told the Chula Vista Star-News, Jan. 27, 1985. Pulley retired in 1986.

“I’ve been quiet since I retired from that department,” he said in 2012. “If you don’t know your history, where you come from, you don’t know how you’re going to go forward.”

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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