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Alumni & Friends

New Warden Welcomes the Challenge

A photograph of BVincent Cullen, Warden, San Quentin State PrisonVincent Cullen, Warden, San Quentin State Prison.

As a student at SF State, Vincent Cullen (B.S., '85) never thought he would find his true calling running California's oldest and most notorious prison. But he couldn't be happier with the unexpected turn of events.

"It's fulfilling beyond belief," says Cullen, who was appointed warden at San Quentin State Prison in January following a one-year stint as its chief deputy warden. "Working in a prison, you get to see the fruits of your labor every day."

Cullen obviously likes a challenge. San Quentin seems perpetually mired in controversy, and turnover among wardens has been high. The latest debate swirls over planned construction of a new state-of-the-art unit for condemned prisoners. Critics want more emphasis on rehabilitation and less on a "Cadillac Death Row."

Cullen says he's all for beefing up education programs, but notes there is only so much he can do given a $250 million cut to prison education programs.

If anyone is up to the demands of the job, it's Cullen says Terri McDonald, chief deputy secretary of operations for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Cullen "will bring stable leadership to San Quentin with a firm commitment to ensuring public safety," McDonald says.

Among Cullen's proudest achievements is seeing to fruition a new, five-story hospital that will serve San Quentin's aging population, which includes 675 Death Row prisoners. The medical facility opened in December – under budget and ahead of schedule.

At San Quentin, Cullen manages a unionized staff of 2,050. Even a quarter century later, the labor relations coursework he took at SF State as part of his concentration in personnel and industrial relations is a big help, he says.

"I like to think that one of my biggest successes here is my harmonious labor relations with collective bargaining units," Cullen says. "I remember we were taught about the premise for labor unions in this country and what role they play in the public sector. If I was not as well equipped as I am to understand effective labor relations, I wouldn't be successful."

Early in his tenure, he put out the word that inmates are free to approach him with problems and concerns, and many do. But his work isn't like its depiction in the movies, he says.

"There's always the scene where the bus shows up with all the new arrivals, and the warden is there telling them how it's going to be, reading them the riot act," Cullen says. "On average, we'll get 200 to 350 new arrivals every week. Do you honestly believe I have time to go down and give a tongue lashing to every new arrival? I really have to laugh about that.".


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