By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR PIO II
Photos by Scott Sabicer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
More than 1,500 employees come to work every day ready to help incarcerated men and women earn an education, knowing that doing so is a key component of rehabilitation.
Each day, CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education (OCE) is responsible for educating more than 40,000 incarcerated students, from those who are learning to read to those earning college degrees. In addition to traditional academic programs, CDCR offers numerous vocational programs, known as Career Technical Education programs, including carpentry, masonry, welding, small engine repair, cosmetology and computer literacy.
Just like any teacher in the community, these men and women go above and beyond every day, creating lesson plans, proctoring exams, organizing study groups, planning special events and encouraging every student to keep learning.
Newly appointed OCE Superintendent Shannon Swain has traveled the state as deputy superintendent since 2014, witnessing firsthand the positive benefits of correctional education. She’s a firm believer not only in educating students, but also in empowering educators to try new approaches, contribute to the OCE team as a whole, and to keep learning themselves.
Swain began her career in criminal justice and rehabilitation in 1984 as an assistant program manager at Orange County Youth and Family Services, working with former offenders. She became a teacher within the Contra Costa County Office of Education program, serving as a teacher in county jails and developing a statewide parolee education program.
In 2012 she was hired as a subject matter expert in correctional education at Synergy Technology and Correctional Services, and in 2014 was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as deputy OCE superintendent.
Swain took the time to share her thoughts on education, rehabilitation, and what it takes to create a positive learning environment, even inside state prison walls.
You’ve been with the department for nearly four years– what have you learned so far?
I have been consistently impressed by the level of professionalism I have encountered throughout CDCR. I have learned that everybody has a story, and if we provide folks with information, ideas, curriculum, new ways of thinking and/or behaving or working or teaching — and the opportunity to share their gifts and talents, the sky is the limit. This holds true for inmate students as well as staff, teachers, coaches, library staff, correctional officers, administrators – internal and external stakeholders of all kinds. There are so many innovative and successful programs, professional development opportunities, training events, symposia — CDCR is truly a dynamic organization.
What changes or enhancements can we expect at OCE?
The next few years will see continued enhancements to the way our staff and students use technology to enhance learning, introduce new content and curriculum and provide access to industry certifications. Staff and students will all see increased integration of technology in learning and in working. OCE is rolling out the Student Success Initiative, which provides all OCE staff with new ways of communicating, new ways of working together and new tools for improving learning outcomes. The college opportunities available to inmate students will continue to grow, and there is a lot of research and data that indicates college is a great investment to improve public safety, as recidivism drops as college increases. Our Career Technical Education programs will continue to be refreshed, so that equipment and techniques are modernized and students can learn skills that will help them gain meaningful employment as they parole.
OCE is committed to great teaching, to create a culture that embraces continuous improvement, customer focus, and student success. We are committed to creating learning environments to improve learner outcomes.
What makes a good OCE team?
The best correctional education teams are diverse, and include folks with varying experiences and backgrounds and talents. These folks come together to make amazing learning opportunities happen for students, and for all inmates who use library services and OCE television services.
You could be a teacher, principal, or superintendent in any “traditional” school. Why did you choose correctional education?
I started in correctional programming when I was still a college undergraduate by working for a nonprofit organization that operated community work furlough and halfway houses for folks on probation or parole. I met a correctional educator well known for innovative jail education programs, and she offered me a chance to teach inside jails, in both academic and substance use disorder programs. I went back to school to obtain my credential, first in teaching, then, after some years, as an administrator, and have always been passionate about and committed to operating evidence-based, high-quality programs for a student population that has been traditionally underserved. I also just plain enjoy adult correctional students! I raised four children – at one point I had three kids under 2 – so working with adults provided some balance and kept me sane.
What advice do you wish you’d been given before you entered this field?
I recently received a greeting card that says, “Have only one rule: Be your wild, courageous, brilliant self every single day. No matter what.” I can’t think what advice I may have heeded, but I would not trade a single one of the mistakes I may have made, or the experiences I have weathered. But were I to give advice, I hope it would sound a lot like that card.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by people of courage – the root of the word comes from the Latin word for heart – who take risks to do things in new ways. When I meet former offenders who have radically changed their thinking and behavior to embrace a whole new paradigm and then turn around to give back to others, I am very inspired. I am also inspired by small acts of kindness and service, and when I read about or hear about people who live quiet lives of service, I am also inspired.
What is one memory that sticks out about education within CDCR?
I recently attended a graduation at one of the CDCR institutions, and heard this amazing keynote speaker from one of the local colleges. As she was being introduced, many wonderful accomplishments were included, from co-authoring journal articles to teaching at the university, to presenting at conferences, etc. Then, toward the end of the introduction, the speaker explained that this honored guest was, until her release from prison in 2010, a life-term inmate, serving a sentence from which she never believed she would parole. That was a pretty special moment.
How do you define success, in terms of correctional education?
Education is the one gift that, once given, no one can ever take away. OCE exists to provide educational opportunities and get inmate students to the next stage of their lives, be that college or a career for paroling inmates, or new ways of thinking and behaving for those inmates who may never parole. The transformation that occurs when someone learns something new is inspiring!
What is something that would surprise people to learn about you?
As a kid growing up, my family was very involved with an international student exchange organization, and hosted 53 students in our home – whether for a week, a summer, a few months, or a year. My brother and I both also went abroad during our junior years in high school, Matt to Japan; I went to Brazil. It was a transformative experience for me – for him, too – and I remain very close with many Brazilian friends who feel like family to me. I lived with musicians and still love to sing bossa nova and other Brazilian music.