When Jesse Pugh was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, a warden wasn’t necessarily the career he dreamed of. Although, he didn’t shy too far – becoming a police officer was the direction where he was headed.
The Bloomington Jefferson High School graduate attended Southwest State University, Marshall for its criminal justice program. But with no emphasis in policing, he had a hard time finding a job.
That’s when he joined the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 2004.
“It was the only job I could get. Once I got in, I really started to enjoy the work and just kind of fell in love with it,” Pugh said. Pugh’s first position was a corrections officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater. He learned not only that he enjoyed the job, but also saw room to advance.
“One of the things that really kept me excited about working for corrections was all the different opportunities. Not only the different locations, but there’s so many different positions and ways to grow your career,” Pugh said.
He got the opportunity to work in case management, and after a year transferred to the St. Cloud facility doing the same work. Pugh was no longer face-to-face with the inmates, but now behind the desk.
“At first when you get into the role as the corrections officer, you’re almost viewed as – bad guy’s not the right term – but you’re the person that’s enforcing the rules, so you get a much different interaction with the population than when you transition into a role where your sole purpose is to help them,” Pugh said.
Enjoying the work, Pugh wanted additional challenges and looked into becoming a supervisor. He was able to take on the role as program director at St. Cloud.
Although he liked the position, Pugh said that St. Cloud is an intake facility, and many of the inmates are in and out, making for a different environment.
“You never really get to establish the rapport with the population because they come, they get processed, and the vast majority of them move on to other facilities for programming,” he said.
He wanted to do something different and experience the programming side of corrections.
“Just to get that different perspective was tremendous, it really was,” Pugh said.
Pugh then became the program director at the Lino Lakes facility for about a year before he had an opportunity to work a temporary assignment for one of the biggest roles in his career: associate warden.
“You really want to be a part of kind of creating that framework and being part of decision making on things and that’s what really attracted me to want to continue to advance,” he said.
After his assignment ended, he was lucky to be able to continue this experience and return to the St. Cloud facility, working as the associate warden.
Shortly after, Pugh made his way to Rush City, first working as an associate warden in 2018.
“I want to be a part of change. I want to be a part of driving things in the direction in what I really feel is important,” he said.
As his time finally came, Pugh took on the role as warden of the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Rush City in May 2022.
“I do truly believe that people can change, and it’s our job to help them do that by providing them the safe space, the programming, the tools they need to be successful,” Pugh said.
Now that he is in this new role, Pugh identified a couple of things he plans to work on and how they go hand-in-hand.
“I want folks to know what great careers there are,” Pugh said. “These are not just jobs, these are careers, and how do we get people that want to have those careers? Some of the other priorities, all the programming and really affecting change in peoples lives, a lot of those things we can’t do if we don’t have the staff to do them safely.”
Pugh said that he wants to really focus on improving the programming of the Rush City facility, but it has been a bit of a struggle in recent years.
“I feel like we really haven’t been able to get to the stuff that’s really important because it’s been so reactionary to COVID and short staffing. So I’m anxious for the day where we don’t have such a focus on those things, and we can really focus on the important work we need to do,” he said.
At the end of the day, Pugh said the most important piece to running the facility and how it comes down to the people that bring it together.
“Our most important job is public safety,” he said. “We’ve got some tremendous staff here that take their jobs incredibly seriously. We have a very high standards of how we do our job, all our staff do. For many of them, this is their community too, and they really want to keep their own community safe.”