Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili
Deputy Chief, CDCR Office of External Affairs

A desire to build bridges connecting all aspects of education was the inspiration behind a productive trip to San Quentin State Prison that brought together leaders in correctional education, adult education and academic accreditation to observe programs, speak to students and staff, and share best practices.

Shannon Swain, Superintendent of CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education was joined by Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP) Director Brant Choate; OCE Deputy Superintendent Hillary Iserman; Carolyn Zachry, Administrator of Adult Education for the California Department of Education (CDE); and Barry Groves, President of the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), for a tour of San Quentin’s many programs led by Principal Michael Wheeless.

“One of my goals as Superintendent is to encourage collaboration and to bring folks together for the good of CDCR students and staff,” Swain shared.

Both WASC and CDE play a role in correctional education. WASC is the accrediting body for not only traditional schools, but also the adult schools operating in each California prison. CDE provides important funding for literacy development in prisons, and also provides opportunities for people returning to their communities after incarceration to continue their education.

CDCR is a recipient of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds, which assist people with accessing employment, education, training and support services to succeed in the labor market. Title II of the act supports adult education and literacy by serving people with barriers to employment, such as English learners, immigrants and low-income individuals, with adult education and skills development programs.

The tour began with a general overview of San Quentin, which houses around 4,300 inmates, with varied missions that include general population, Death Row, a Reception Center for newly arriving offenders, and many inmates with complex medical and mental health needs.

Even with that diverse population, the prison is home to robust educational and vocational programs, which the academic group observed throughout the day.

“My real takeaway was that the inmates we met are developing tools to help ensure they are prepared for reentry, with the goal of not coming back to prison,” Zachry said.

They stopped in on Code.7370, a partnership of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) and The Last Mile in which incarcerated students are taught how to computer code. The intensive program is taught by experts in the field who teach all aspects of coding. Eligible students are able to work in a Joint Venture program, The Last Mile Works, which employs offenders to work as software engineers while still incarcerated, putting their skills to work on client-driven projects while earning industry-comparable wages. Numerous graduates of the program have gone on to find success in the tech industry after parole, working for companies including Facebook, RocketSpace and Fandom.

Swain sees partners such as The Last Mile and CALPIA as an integral part of great offender programming: “Ideally, an inmate can enter prison, be assessed for their academic and vocational needs and interests, participate actively in OCE academic and Career Technical Education programs, then once they have achieved their high school equivalency, diploma, GED, or industry trade certification, they move into a program such asT Last Mile or CALPIA for on-the-job training, or to college if that is where their interests lie,” she said, adding, “This provides a pathway for success when they leave prison.”

“I continue to be impressed with the high quality of the career technical programs, as well as those that serve the academic needs of the students,” said Groves. “Of special note during my trip were the exciting media program, exemplary coding opportunities and the state-of-the-art vocational options.”

The group also ventured further into the vocational area of San Quentin, visiting a Career Technical Education (CTE) program that teaches offenders machining using state-of-the-art Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines. The CNC program is a partnership between OCE and Titan Gilroy, the owner of a precision machine shop and a formerly incarcerated man who believes firmly in teaching offenders marketable technical skills to help them succeed after prison. Students in the CNC program demonstrated their various projects, from drafting plans using a computer program to measuring and creating metal components using complex machines.

“I was very impressed with the programs offered,” Zachry shared, “specifically the CTE programs and the connections to industry outside the prison walls.”

Zachry said she was also impressed with the peer mentorship she saw in action. More experienced students often spend time teaching newer students or those who are struggling, both in the machine shop and in teacher D. Searle’s classroom, where students were helping each other study for their high school equivalency exams. Searle shared with the visitors the challenges and successes of her students, and how the teachers at San Quentin collaborate to develop best practices and facilitate learning.

The tour extended beyond classroom walls as well, as the visitors were able to check out the San Quentin Media Center and meet the people responsible for running a successful newspaper, radio program, video production program and even a podcast, all produced by incarcerated people. The men who produce the San Quentin News, San Quentin Prison Report, First Watch videos and the Ear Hustle podcast shared how education impacted their journeys, and discussed the importance of encouraging others to pursue academic interests.

While the Media Center members do produce entertaining content, they also have the responsibility to create media designed to inspire, such as a First Watch video the group watched that highlighted the importance of maintaining family connections during incarceration. Additionally, they are responsible for every aspect of production, from developing a concept to writing a script and all of the recording, editing, graphic design, and securing administrative review necessary to ensure a quality product.

“The students were focused, on task and learning valuable skills,” Groves observed.

The rehabilitative and educational efforts of the programs are recognized by CDCR, as the San Quentin News is distributed to every California prison, and recently “Ear Hustle” was approved to be broadcast on DRP-TV, the television stations available to inmates statewide. Along with watching programming about health and wellness, education, reentry and announcements about policy changes or other issues that impact incarcerated people in California, people at other prisons are able to read a transcript of each podcast episode while listening to the audio.

“We want to be able to make it so what is on DRP-TV is educational, but also entertaining,” Choate said. “That’s what ‘Ear Hustle’ provides. It’s very educational, and therapeutic, as well as entertaining.”

The podcast, hosted by Earlonne Woods and San Quentin volunteer Nigel Poor, tells stories about life in prison, the criminal justice system, and redemption, told by people who have actually been through it. It’s been downloaded millions of times and has won several awards been named in numerous “best of” podcast lists. Even with all that recognition, Poor said having the podcast approved to air inside each prison is one of its biggest accomplishments.

“It really was a dream,” she said. “It makes me feel proud that it’s going to be heard by other men and women, and hopefully affect them, and hopefully spread the word about the importance of these stories both inside and outside institutions.”

A major goal for Swain as superintendent is to encourage collaboration not just among programs within prisons and throughout CDCR, but also across agencies and communities. Tours like this allow academic partners the opportunity to speak with both students and teachers to learn about the unique world of correctional education, and to strengthen those partnerships to create even more opportunities for students.

“OCE has amazing partnerships with many state agencies, each of which plays in integral and important role in our success,” Swain said. “Great educational programs for inmate students do not occur in a silo!”