“Hey babe! We’re releasing an inmate,” the prison warden spoke into his phone. “He’s coming to our town. No, he’s not safe at all … [We don’t let him] out for programs. He’s too dangerous, he might assault somebody. Anyway, he’s paroling to our city. Lock the back door, and don’t pick up any hitchhikers.”
During staff trainings, Warden William Muniz sometimes fakes this phone call to his wife. As the warden at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) in Soledad, California, Muniz wants to challenge his staff to reconsider their roles at the prison. Staff aren’t just responsible for safety inside the prison, but for safety outside the prison as well.
After all, 95 percent of all prisoners are eventually released back into the community. “When inmates successfully reenter society, it is safer for my family,” Muniz explained. He uses the pretend conversation with his wife to remind staff of their responsibility for public safety.
Muniz’s desire to safely restore prisoners to society has been fueled by his participation in the Warden Exchange (WE), a high-impact program of Prison Fellowship. Pedro Moreno, director of the Warden Exchange, states that “WE is an innovative platform that unites wardens and assistant wardens from across the United States and facilitates the exchange of best practices regarding transformational leadership for staff and moral rehabilitation of inmates.”
Muniz says that his experience with the Warden Exchange was one of the most influential training components of his job. “WE helped me to prioritize and find the ways to do what I was passionate [about] … and put into practice the goals that I had in my institution,” he says.
As warden, he is in a unique position of influence, the gatekeeper of programs that come inside the prison. “As part of the justice system, [I] can do something to make the people we love safe when they walk in the park,” he says.
He believes that his institution is responsible to make hope available to inmates. When he became warden at Salinas Valley State Prison, he got the word HOPE stenciled above his desk as a reminder that when staff cultivate a prison culture of hope, prisoners are more likely to participate in programs that prepare them to rejoin society.
Under Muniz’s leadership, Salinas Valley State Prison has creatively involved staff and inmates on several positive projects this year. A group of inmate veterans at his facility held a bake sale, raising nearly $5,000 for Tatum’s Garden, an inclusive playground for children with disabilities.
Muniz also facilitated the production of a video for high school students who are at-risk for criminal behavior and incarceration. He interviewed several inmates at SVSP, asking them what they wished they had known when they were in high school. The prisoners shared among other things that they wished they had known it was OK to hug their parents and OK not to be cool in high school.
Students who viewed the film were touched by the prisoners’ vulnerability. School administration took the students to visit the prison and hear directly from the inmate panel. The lieutenant who facilitated their prison visit shared that it was one of the most incredible interactions he has seen in his life. By the end of the discussion, not a single eye in this maximum security prison was dry.
Muniz says that positive projects like this one are his niche in corrections. He strives to connect prisoners with the public and the public with prisoners. A constructive connection like the one between the inmates and students can transform the inmates, giving them hope as they reenter society and teaching the public that prisoners are not just monsters who need to be locked up but human beings who made a mistake and have the potential to change.