SQ Mission: Learning to earn a living wage

By Kevin D. Sawyer

In prison, education is all about public safety. Shannon Swain, Deputy Superintendent for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Office of Correctional Education (OCE) understands this well.

“If someone’s going to do time, then they should learn something to better their community,” said Swain. “If someone learns a skill in prison it will lead to a living wage when they get out.”

In October, Swain visited San Quentin State Prison, where she was able to get a general idea of its educational programs. The prison is recognized as the CDCR’s flagship prison for what rehabilitation looks like, and Swain wants to make it better.

“We have some really exciting things happening for education at San Quentin,” said Swain. She explained that Titan Gilroy, owner of Titan America MFG, is bringing a state-of-the-art CNC (computer numeric control) machine shop to the prison.

“The entire machine shop had to be gutted,” said Swain, “so it will look like the potential jobs they’ll (inmates) get.”

Swain’s focus is not solely on San Quentin. She is responsible for ensuring education is available to prisoners statewide. She said that CDCR’s rehabilitation programs reach roughly half the inmate population.

According to Swain, the RAND Corporation did a study and concluded college impacts recidivism the most. “That’s something that matters,” she said, adding that Senate Bill 1391 is now taking effect in 29 of the CDCR’s 35 prisons so inmates now have face-to-face instruction with college instructors.

Swain said San Quentin “blazed the trail” with face-to-face college, citing the Prison University Project’s Jody Lewen, who recently received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House. “She’s an inspiration to us.”

CDCR has other college programs such as Coastline Community College, Lassen College and Feather River College. “We know face-to-face adds considerable value,” said Swain.

Swain said CDCR has 25 academic trades and OCE is increasing the linkage of programs throughout the system to encourage a “stackable curriculum.”

For example, if  inmates start a program and transfers to another prison, they still maintain their credits. Swain said the National Center for Construction Education and Research is another program adopted by CDCR because it is transferable, standardized and offers certification.

“We’re excited that technology can help us,” said Swain referring to E-readers for inmates to complete their education and Internet Protocol Television. “We have four channels that OCE is responsible for.”

Those channels are Freedom TV that teaches inmates about effective family relations and substance abuse; Education, broadcasting Coastline Community College and GED courses; Health and Wellness, to teach fitness and nutrition; and Employment/Employability that provides instruction on interviewing and writing resumes.

“Each institution has a TV specialist to help get it started,” said Swain. “As we expand we hope to get more inmates involved.”

Governor Brown appointed Swain on April 29, 2014. Previously, she worked at the Martinez Detention Facility in Contra Costa County teaching adult basic education and high school equivalency. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in American Studies from California State University Fullerton and an Educational Leadership Credential from California State University East Bay.

“Anytime I teach anything to adults I make sure they want to learn it, otherwise they won’t,” said Swain. “Correctional education is a specialized field. I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else.”

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