Prisoners Make Good Use of Hard Time on Hard Drives

Prisoners Make Good Use of Hard Time on Hard Drives

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

Government agencies, private employers and individuals wondering how to get rid of antiquated computers without junking them have found an answer in an unusual place ? prisons.

Computer refurbishing programs in prisons nationwide are a win-win situation for all involved, according to program supporters. Computer donors get a tax write-off, inmates get job training, and students and teachers get computers in their classrooms.

The program also helps the environment by keeping out of landfills electronic products containing dangerous chemicals such as mercury and cadmium.

Such refurbishing initiatives have gained attention since California started its program in four prisons in 1994. Since then, similar programs have begun in several other states, including Washington, Texas, Ohio, New York, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado and Utah, according to Dave Ledden, spokesperson for Micro 2000 Inc., a Glendale, Calif., company that makes diagnostic software and training materials used in many of the programs. And Federal Prison Industries, a division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, operates a computer-recycling program at sites in Florida, New Jersey and Ohio.

More than 70,000 computers have been given to California public schools since the state's program began, said Ray Kirkpatrick, computer refurbishing program coordinator for the prison system. The program now operates in 12 of 33 California state prisons. Companies such as San Francisco-based Pacific Bell, part of SBC Communications Inc., and IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., helped launch the effort with equipment donations.

"We found that the inmates enjoyed the program," Kirkpatrick said. "If it's a benefit for the kids, they really will buy into the program. They feel that they are actually doing something that will benefit possibly their own relatives."

About 900 inmates at a time
participate in California's program, with 500 getting training in basic electronics and 400 working in refurbishing shops. The inmates learn to diagnose and fix computer problems. They use parts salvaged from unfixable machines to get others running again, and any scraps left over get recycled.

"If [prisoners] learn an industry where they're doing more than selling hamburgers [after their release] ? it becomes a real success story," Ledden said.

Although those success stories are difficult to track once former prisoners get off parole, refurbishment program directors in California and Wisconsin said they know the training helps inmates get and keep jobs when they are out of prison.

One man now earns $70,000 a year working at a wireless data networking company in Santa Clara, Calif., said Al Chaney, who started the program at Folsom State Prison in Represa, Calif. The one inmate released since Wisconsin's 5-year-old program began has also held down a job, said Steve Kronzer, director of the state's Bureau of Correctional Enterprises.

According to a 1995 Federal Bureau of Prisons study of more than 7,000 inmates, 72 percent of those who participated in a prison work, vocational training or apprenticeship program, or a combination of these programs, had found and kept jobs by the end of their first year out of prison. Sixty-three percent of those who had not participated in these programs were able to find and keep jobs in the same time period.

Diane Anthony, recycling program manager for Federal Prison Industries in Washington, said buyers visiting the recycling site in Marianna, Fla., offer jobs to about 30 former inmates each year.

The buyers ? other computer recyclers and refurbishers ? need workers with the skills inmates have to offer, she said.

"[Inmates] know how to activate the machine, how to put it together, how to install it, how to use software, and about all the components of the machine. We've had many, many inquiries about upcoming releases and possible employment," Anthony said.

Wisconsin's refurbishing program has proven so popular that "the amount of [computer] donations continues to overwhelm us," Kronzer said.

Computers bound for the state's two refurbishing facilities fill about 70,000 square feet of warehouse space. Kronzer expects to expand the program in up to three more prisons to keep up with the demand, and to provide more opportunities for prisoners.

"We have a large number of inmates that are and have been idle. Part of our goal is to provide as many work opportunities as possible," he said.

Like California's effort, the Wisconsin initiative is a hybrid plan to provide vocational training to inmates and computers to school children, and to keep electronics out of landfills.

"If there aren't more efforts to recycle, more and more of [computers are] going to end up in landfills," Kronzer said.

Chaney, author of the how-to manual "Computer Recycling for Education," took the effort beyond prisons to California's community colleges. Now a waste management specialist for the state's Environmental Protection Agency, he works with California's 140 state colleges to reduce the waste they send to landfills.

The refurbishing program Chaney helped set up at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, Calif., refurbished about 300 computers in its first year, according to Art Curry, Sierra's director of economic development.

Perry Rogers, principal of Sacramento Adventist Academy in Carmichael, Calif., received five of those machines for his elementary school students.

"We have a lab that's on the Net, but the students are only in there for two 30-minute periods a week. Now they'll
have access to it all day long in their classroom," Rogers said. "For us, it was really simple. We sent a letter requesting the computers; we got the computers. It was super."

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