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Former prisoners face big digital divide

Because of the rapid pace of technological change, thousands of inmates leave prison every year to find a world very different from the one they knew when they went in.
Ayana Hancock, right, gets help with her e-mail from David McHaney at the Osborne Association in New York earlier this year. Hancock was in prison from 1999 until 2003, McHaney from 1996 until 2000. "Technology is like a giant steamroller," McHaney says, "Either you're on it or you're under it."Tina Fineberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to reading or arithmetic, Marvin Calvin is delighted to help his two children. He missed out on many of the duties of parenthood during a 10-year stretch in prison for armed robbery.

But when it comes to MP3 players, video game consoles, computers or the Internet, he is just baffled.

"I won't even sit down with them and play that little game thing because I don't even know how to operate it," said the 48-year-old Calvin, who was freed in July.

He is a technological Rip Van Winkle.

Because of the rapid pace of technological change, thousands of inmates like Calvin leave prison every year to find a world very different from the one they knew when they went in.

"Technology is like a giant steamroller," said David McHaney, who spent nearly four years behind bars for drug offenses. "Either you're on it or you're under it, and you know what happens to that pile of asphalt when that big giant wheel gets to rolling."

McHaney now works at The Osborne Association, a New York City organization that helps released prisoners rebuild their lives. He teaches them the basics of Internet and computer use, as well as how to create resumes and look for work.

The need for technological knowledge has grown so much that even Osborne cannot hire many former inmates, said executive director Elizabeth Gaynes. "We need our work force to be computer literate," she said. "We do not have any entry-level jobs that do not require technical competence."

The digital divide, the chasm before computer haves and have-nots, is awfully wide when talking about America's prison population.

The average inmate among the nation's 2.1 million prisoners is a 34-year-old man without a high school diploma, said Christy Visher, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington.

That means someone whose education ended in the 1980s, long before the technological transformation of the past decade. Longer prison terms can make the technological gap even wider.

Prisons offer educational courses, but inmate advocates say they are limited and constantly at risk of being eliminated because of shifting public opinion. And advocates and former inmates say prisons are rarely the places to learn about the newest technologies.

"Very few things in there are even close to state of the art," said Terry Reed, an Osborne instructor released from prison last year after an 18-year term. "They're always behind the times. Nothing is kept current."

The skills that inmates do learn are generally geared toward helping the prisons function, not toward creating job skills valuable on the outside, said Debbie Mukamal, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

John Nuttall, deputy commissioner for program services for the New York state Corrections Department, said the state's prisons are focusing more on preparing inmates for the outside.

He said New York offers classes on general business, where inmates can learn about computer programs such as spreadsheets, as well as a computer technology course that teaches the hardware side.

But he also acknowledged that enrollment in the computer courses is limited. And with technology changing all the time, the costs of keeping equipment in prisons up to date is prohibitive.

Similarly, in Texas, the Windham School District runs about 70 schools around the state with computer labs and offers courses on such topics as computer maintenance.

Inmate advocates said preparing prisoners for life on the outside is vital to keeping them from winding up behind bars again.

"If you don't help people who are coming out of prison become successful, start a conventional life, they're going to be out there creating problems for you, your family, and your neighborhood," Visher said.