Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO

Office of Public and Employee Communications

For the first time, public information officers (PIO) and their backups from prisons, parole and other divisions statewide gathered at CDCR headquarters for a two-day summit.

Serving as a refresher course, the summit was organized by Krissi Khokhobashvili, PIO II with the Office of Public and Employee Communications (OPEC). The idea came from Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) Director Kathleen Allison, who spoke at last year’s annual PIO training for new AA/PIOs and saw the value in bringing in every PIO in the state together for training, networking and sharing best practices. DAI approved and facilitated the summit.

California State Prison, Sacramento, PIO Lt. Tony Quinn said he learned a lot from the summit.

Lt. Tony Quinn, AA/PIO with CSP-Sacramento, introduces himself at the beginning of the summit.

“I thought the summit was informative. It was a great way to learn the achievements, frustrations and concerns of fellow PIOs at other institutions. CSP-Sacramento does not have the media interest that a lot of the other institutions/missions have, therefore, I personally could not relate to a number of the issues raised. I did however learn the tremendous undertaking and stresses that come with the newly implemented Prop. 57 and the great strides our agency is taking in the rehabilitation of inmates,” he said. “I couldn’t help but admire the tireless efforts of the women and men of the CDCR who are working diligently to get the positive message to the public about CDCR’s rehabilitative efforts and their personal efforts to achieve the goals of the department.”

Something he learned is an easy-to-remember formula for how to deal with everyday situations.

“CCO – Compassion, Conviction and Optimism. Simple yet very effective. I shared that with all of our executive staff upon my return to the institution and I plan to implement it in my daily interactions with concerned citizens inquiring about their incarcerated friends and family members. I believe this very simple formula is versatile and can be used in a broad spectrum of situations and circumstances,” he said.

“CCO” was introduced by Kelly Huston, deputy director of crisis communications and media relations for Cal OES, who sat on a crisis communications panel. He was joined by Liz Gransee, PIO II from California Correctional Health Care Services, Capt. Stephen Babb of California State Prison, Corcoran, and Janet Upton, deputy director of communications for CAL FIRE. All shared their experience in media relations during a crisis. Others joining in summit panels included Shannon Swain, deputy superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education, who sat on a panel about publicizing the department’s rehabilitation efforts, and reporters Bob Moffitt (Capital Public Radio), Sam Stanton (Sacramento Bee), Macy Jenkins (CBS Sacramento) and Almendra Carpizo (Stockton Record), who discussed the media’s needs when it comes to working with PIOs.

Learning about the department’s expectations from management was enlightening.

“Hearing the expectation and current direction of our agency from (CDCR Secretary Scott) Kernan and (Division of Adult Institutions Director Kathleen) Allison was my favorite part. Being a PIO gives us a unique and rare opportunity to hear directly from top administrators (regarding) current goals and objectives. While most employees in the institutions rarely get to speak with a warden, we have the ability to hear from top officials and be able to address them directly,” he said.

Often the public has a negative image of correctional staff, which Lt. Quinn said makes his job that much more difficult.

“The most challenging part of my job is the accusations made by the public and the calls of concern I receive. In most cases, family members have a negative outlook on correctional employees in general and have a preconceived notion that correctional staff are corrupt and/or abusive to the inmate population. Because CSP-Sac has a large population of inmates suffering from severe to moderate mental illness, we receive calls daily inquiring about the health, care and well-being of offenders in our care,” he said. “The calls are usually very negative and confrontational. Also, with the level of violence that we experience at CSP-Sac, I also have the very daunting task of completing Next of Kin Notifications. I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty in notifying a mother that her son has just been murdered, stabbed or seriously injured.”

Lt. Quinn said getting a chance to put faces to names was welcome.

“It was nice to see everyone face to face. I got a chance to see some people in person that I have talked to and grown to respect over the years. It was a great opportunity to network and information share,” he said. “I think overall it was a positive and informative experience and I think the tradition of getting the hardest working women and men at each institution together each year should continue.”

Lt. Megan Cherinka, PIO at CMF.

California Medical Facility PIO Lt. Megan Cherinka said the summit benefits the department. She also said the chance to network with others in the department was important.

“Having the PIO Summit was beneficial because you were able to gather all the PIOs into one area. This is not an easy feat with the demand of our jobs and being away from the institution,” she said. “I thought it was helpful to hear from the diverse staff at OPEC and refreshing to be away from the office for a couple days in order to gain knowledge to take back to the institution. I found bringing in Secretary Scott Kernan and Director Kathleen Allison a nice touch as we are able to hear the thought process and opinions of upper management.”

She has been a PIO at CMF since October of 2016, and has been with the Department since April 2007.

“I started at Mule Creek State Prison as an Officer and promoted to CMF as a Sergeant in May of 2013,” she said. “Then (I promoted to) Lieutenant in January of 2016.”

Lt. Cherinka said she enjoys the fast pace of the PIO job.

“The most challenging aspect of my job is time management. With the phone constantly ringing, correspondence, emails, event planning, news media, what to send out to OPEC, what to send to the papers, RAC, Prop. 57, Audits, conference calls, lifting-and-shifting of Department of State Hospitals, etc., your eight-hour day can go by very quickly. There have been many days where I look at the clock and it is past 1600 hours and I have not moved from email or phone,” she said. “I wouldn’t change the speed of the job for the world. I love this job. I love being busy, and my opinion is ‘bring it.’ What can you throw at me? And, let’s get it done.”

Lt. John Ojo, PIO at CSP-Solano.

Lt. John Ojo, PIO for CSP-Solano for a year, said he would describe the first summit as “progressive.”

“I truly enjoyed the experience to meet the other PIOs from all over the state and be able to speak/hear about what they do at their institutions that works well. It is forward-thinking for us to break out of our individual silos, and look at problems and best practices from a broader perspective that affect us all,” he said. “One thing that I will take away from the event was the importance of building relationships with different media.”

Lt. Ojo, who has been with the department for almost 13 years, also said hearing directly from CDCR leadership was important.

“My favorite part of the summit was hearing from both Secretary Kernan and Director Allison. Secretary Kernan painted a clear picture of where the department is headed and used humor to convey realistic experiences he had with the media, from recently dealing with Oprah, to his time as PIO at CMF, and maintaining your composure while difficult questions are being thrown at you,” he said. “Director Allison shared her vision of the department, and I personally think it is important for us to all be aware and in line with the department’s direction.”

Outside media outlets were invited into the summit to speak with the PIOs, which Lt. Ojo appreciated.

“Listening to the panelists from the different media outlets was useful because historically media have not shed a positive light on the department,” he said. “However, getting to hear their perspective and frustrations firsthand was important and reflects the importance of transparent communication. I also like how OPEC reached out to the (other media outlets) and illustrated building relationships. I want to thank all of OPEC for making this happen especially Krissi because I know she was the shot-caller who made the entire experience happen.”

Robert Brown, left, CRM with RJ Donovan Correctional Facility, listens as Lt. Sam Robinson speaks during the summit.

Robert Brown, Community Resources Manager for Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, said he also learned a lot from the experience.

“It was very educational,” he said. “I came away with some new energy and ideas on how to increase programming visibility with local media. (I also learned) how to get the attention of the reporter with a very crowded inbox.”

CRM Brown has been acting as a PIO for about three years, he said.

Lt. Sarah Watson, the PIO for California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, said the summit was well put-together.

Something she said she learned that will help make her job easier is “making closer relationships with the local media, to invite them into our institution to see all of our programs.”

Lt. Sarah Watson, AA/PIO for CRC.

Lt. Watson, who started with the department in 1987, has been the PIO off and on since 2014.

“Reaching out to the outside media (is challenging), because it is something that hasn’t been done much here,” she said.

Lt. Robert Kelsey, AA/PIO at SCC.

Lt. Robert Kelsey, the PIO for Sierra Conservation Center for almost four years, also found the summit to be worthwhile.

“This was a great event and to be able to sit in a room with all my peers who are fellow PIOs was invaluable. There are only about 50 of us in an agency almost 60,000 strong and we have such a huge responsibility to ensure the department’s message and reputation are protected,” he said. “I took away a deeper knowledge of my duties as well as now I know which PIOs have dealt with some issues that I may run into myself.”

Lt. Kelsey, who has been with the department for 12 years, was appreciative of the effort put into the summit.

“The interaction with other PIOs and the access to the Secretary and Director Allison were fantastic,” he said. “I just want to thank everyone at OPEC and the CDCR HQ staff who approved this training.”

Lt. Gregory Crowe, PIO at High Desert State Prison since 2013, said the summit was  “a great opportunity to catch up and do some networking.”

A 15-year veteran of CDCR, Lt. Crowe said while the training was put together well, he hopes it continues as an annual tradition.

“I got some great ideas to streamline (my duties). Great job putting it all together. Do it every year,” he said.