California prisons are helping to make dent in the state’s digital divide

By JESSICA BRICE, Associated Press Writer
Monday June 17, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Students at the CHESS/SUCCESS Academy, an elementary school for at-risk kids, will get a big surprise when they return to school in the fall. 

A new computer lab, complete with 50 computers, will have replaced their old lab that consisted of just bits and pieces of older computers that hardly worked. 

“They were good for playing games,” said Principal Ed Watkins. “That’s about it.” 

The “new” computers come from an unlikely source — they were built by California prison inmates through a program that Watkins called the school’s “greatest chance for getting a decent lab.” 

Watkins’ appeal for help in building a better computer lab was answered by the Department of Corrections, which is the largest contributor of free computers to the state’s public schools. 

In the program, which began in 1994, inmates at nine prisons are trained to rebuild and reprogram donated computers. So far, the department has placed more than 85,000 computers in public schools across the state. 

At the same time, inmates such as Mancy Thompson, who spends his days behind the walls of the Folsom State Prison, are working toward getting industry-standard computer certification that will help them get high-paying jobs and stay out of prison. 

About 800 inmates participate in the program and spend 40 hours a week taking classes, studying for the certification tests and refurbishing the computers. Twenty percent of all the computers they finish go to schools near the prisons, and the remainder are distributed evenly around the state. 

Thompson, a 38-year-old former marine who hopes to someday open a computer shop, said he likes the idea that he’s able to do something for kids in disadvantaged communities. 

“I’m in prison for what I did, not who I am,” Thompson said. “Some of our communities, we destroyed. We owe it to ourselves to help rebuild what we helped destroy.” 

The program has faced numerous roadblocks during the eight years it’s been in operation, including the loss of all of its funding, said program coordinator Ray Kirkpatrick. 

In 1997, a one-time Assembly bill gave the CDC $5.5 million for the program, followed by a $4 million federal grant, which they used to buy parts that couldn’t be salvaged from the donated computers, Kirkpatrick said. When that money dried up two years later, the program nearly went under. 

Since then, the program has operated without state money, staying afloat through a partnership with the nonprofit Technology Training Foundation of America, which handles the computer pickups and placement in schools. 

“We need each other,” Kirkpatrick said. “Since we’re a government agency, we can’t provide the tax write-off when someone donates computers. We also can’t purchase parts.” 

The CDC is mandated by law to donate all the computers its inmates refurbish to public schools, while the training foundation, through other refurbishing centers, provides some computers to nonprofit organizations and community centers. 

Jeanette Roache, executive director of the training foundation, said the program is growing stronger and donating more computers each year, but they always have a waiting list of at least 1,000 computers. 

“California still ranks 50th for the ratio of students to every computer,” she said. “That’s not good enough.” 

Roache said the main problems the organization faces are computers with missing parts, such as cords, or corporations that drill holes through the hard drives of their donated computers to erase the stored information.