The DRP leadership team, from left, Kevin Hoffman, DRP deputy director; Jessica Mazlum, chief of contract compliance; Shannon Swain, OCE superintendent (A); Hillary Iserman, OCE deputy superintendent (A); Brant Choate, DRP director; Landon Bravo, chief of program operations; and Ryan Souza, deputy director for program support.

Rehabilitation charges forward for California corrections

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

A lifelong educator and transformer of organizational cultures has stepped in to lead CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP) through a huge philosophical shift in the department.

CDCR is committed to preparing offenders for success after prison through an incarceration model that provides effective rehabilitation through vocational training, academic education, behavioral therapies, family and relationship building and easing reentry into society, all while maintaining secure prisons and enhancing public safety. In partnership with every other arm of CDCR, DRP is at the forefront of those efforts, enveloping the division of In-Prison Services, Office of Correctional Education (OCE) and Community Reentry Services. Stepping up to lead those efforts – and the more than 2,500 people who work across those divisions – is Dr. Brant Choate.

Brant Choate is sworn into office by CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan.

“I guess at heart I’m an academic,” said Choate, who came to CDCR as OCE director in June 2014 following more than two decades in public and private education. “But I don’t want to be typecast as the education guy, because I’m really more of an organizational behavior guy. How do you take an organization at its current status, whether it’s good or bad, and take it to a higher level?”

One way to do that, Choate says, is to “awaken sleeping giants” – to recognize, as a leader, team members’ strong points and passions, and empower them to use those skills and ideas to develop programs, build support and enhance existing systems. He does that by paying attention to all areas of DRP, from the people running programs and teaching inside institutions to the behind-the-scenes support staff making those programs possible.

“Are people happy in their job? Are they empowered? Do they feel like they are being challenged? Are they growing in their experience?” are all questions Choate challenges himself and DRP leadership to ask about their staff. “It doesn’t matter what level they are – there’s a sleeping giant in there somewhere. And if a manager is holding you back because of their inability to tap into that, then there’s a problem with the manager.”

“Brant brings to DRP a much-needed ability to think creatively,” said CDCR Undersecretary of Operations Ralph Diaz. “He has an ability to see things that people who ‘grew up’ in CDCR, like me, don’t see. Through the work he has done for CDCR, his commitment to our institutions and our staff, I think he has earned a rightful place as a CDCR executive.”

Choate’s teaching experience began in the public school system, and in 1992 he fulfilled his dream of opening a private school, Golden Hills School, which still operates in El Dorado Hills today. Choate served as Golden Hills principal until 2003, and then as chair of the School of Education at the University of Phoenix Sacramento Valley, establishing the program at 11 different campuses between Sacramento and Bakersfield. Choate earned Doctor of Education and Master of Arts degrees in educational leadership from Saint Mary’s College and a Bachelor of Science in Educational Psychology from Brigham Young University. From University of Phoenix, he moved to the Sacramento City Unified School District as director of adult education at the Charles A. Jones Career and Technical Education Center, where a large portion of the students he served were formerly incarcerated.

It was there that Choate met Chuck Pattillo, executive director of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), which had once partnered with the center for a commercial truck driving program. Hoping to reestablish the relationship with CALPIA, Choate met with Pattillo, who took him on a tour of Folsom State Prison. That meeting, and his work with parolee students, piqued Choate’s interest in correctional education and the possibility of making a difference by providing opportunities to incarcerated men and women.

He moved to Los Angeles, which was struggling to provide consistent educational programs for students in county jails. Working with contacts throughout the state and country, Choate and his team brought in Five Keys Charter School, John Muir Charter School and the Centinela Valley Unified School District, which started the New Opportunities Charter School within the jails. Then, Choate made another connection to CDCR, one that will not be surprising to those familiar with innovative programs happening inside state prisons.

“I met Scott Budnick in an elevator,” Choate said.

Budnick, a former film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, has long been involved in restorative justice programs, from the Inside-Out Writers Project that conducts writing classes inside jails and prisons, to bringing in outside guests to discuss rehabilitation and reentry with the incarcerated, supporting the formerly incarcerated and advocating for criminal justice reform throughout the state. Recognizing Choate as a jail employee by his badge, Budnick struck up a conversation and soon the two were brainstorming ways to transform the landscape of correctional education in LA jails.

Brant Choate leads his first DRP Director’s Stakeholder Advisory Meeting, which draws together rehabilitation professionals from around the state to share ideas and concerns.

“His vision was very creative, very non-bureaucratic, very outside the box,” Budnick said. “I found that very impressive for a county department. We were able to really expand the education program.”

One of their biggest accomplishments, Choate remembered, was developing a system for integrating new arrivals into a rehabilitation-focused atmosphere by ensuring they are immediately placed into a dorm and enrolled in high school, leaving no time to get mixed up with any jail politics or bad influences.

Through that connection and many more, Choate’s work overhauling jail education led him to meet CDCR leadership, including presenting at a Board of State and Community Corrections meeting where he met Jeff Beard and Millicent Tidwell, then the Secretary of CDCR and Director of DRP, respectively.

Today DRP is at the forefront of rehabilitating offenders, providing hundreds of programs to thousands of incarcerated people and those reentering their communities. The 2016-17 budget enabled DRP to expand Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Cognitive Behavioral Treatment services statewide, providing offenders with courses in drug treatment, victim impact, family relationships and changing criminal thinking. The Long Term Offender Program, geared specifically toward men and women serving life sentences, is expanding to 30 adult institutions, and the Arts in Corrections and Innovative Grants Program have expanded partnerships with professional artists and successful program providers to offer an array of programs to offenders, from structured arts programs like theater and music to out-of-the-box programs including yoga, dog training, gardening and technology skills. Face-to-face college programs are offered at 34 prisons, and in the Offender Mentor Certification Program offenders are training to become state-certified substance abuse counselors, serving both their communities once they parole and as in-prison counselors while incarcerated.

Brant Choate receives a Distinguished Service Medal from CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan for his work to expand educational opportunities for inmates.

On the reentry side, DRP oversees five Male Community Reentry Program sites, allowing offenders to serve the last part of their sentences in a community program while immersing themselves in rehabilitative programs, finding employment, continuing education and connecting with services in their hometowns. From Day Reporting Centers and partnerships with Caltrans and other state and local employers, DRP has strengthened its partnership with the Division of Adult Parole Operations to expand reentry services, working toward a “soft handoff” between correctional institutions and communities. While still in prison, offenders are now provided reentry programming at every adult institution.

Looking forward, Choate said the next few months will focus on implementing current program expansions, working even more closely with parole, increasing program options and developing a clear vision for DRP. All will be done with an emphasis on developing staff, providing the right program to the right offender at the right time, and working to ensure program offerings are translatable to real-world job skills.

With 35 prisons, 119,000 inmates, 43,000 parolees and more than 2,500 DRP staff and contractors statewide, there are many sleeping giants waiting to be awakened.