By Kevin D. Sawyer
Journalism Guild Chairman
A November visit from members of Microsoft’s information technology team prompted a dialogue about helping incarcerated Americans overcome one of their biggest obstacles upon returning to society: learning how to use a computer after decades of confinement.
San Quentin State Prison teaches a course in vocational computer literacy as one of its many rehabilitative programs to combat the digital divide, and the Microsoft employees said they would like to help enhance the program.
“You need to be able to navigate on a computer without being an expert,” said K.C., Microsoft’s director of information technology in San Francisco, who recently visited San Quentin. She asked to be identified only by her initials.
K.C. and Rob Ford, general manager of information technology at Microsoft in Seattle, met with San Quentin’s computer literacy instructor K. Bhatt to discuss ways to improve the class and other skills for the men to market themselves.
“It was eye-opening,” Ford said. “I really want to help contribute.”
K.C. and Ford said they would like to visit the class on a monthly basis and eventually upgrade the vocation’s software. They were not aware how outdated is the software currently in use.
Men in the class said they felt anxiety that a lack of computer literacy could decrease their chances of succeeding after leaving prison. Inmate Adrian Burgos said he was concerned with daily survival when he gets out of prison. He said he wanted to know what technology is being used on the outside.
“My biggest obstacle getting out will be technology,” said Bradley Ware.
“We’re in a cave,” said inmate Randy Atkins. “We’re trying to come out of the cave.”
The consensus among students is that they want to learn anything that will help them on the outside.
Ford explained to Akins the concept and technology of storing and retrieving information on the cloud as opposed to a personal computer or smart phone. He said using the cloud makes a user’s data accessible from any device at any time.
Ford also discussed Microsoft’s use of touch-screen computer technology, prompting responses from men in the class who said they want to understand it better.
“If you had two hours of our time, what would you like?” Ford asked the class.
“Everything that makes it easy to navigate through the world,” said Akins. “You can tell me, but you’re going to have to show me, too.”
The issue is particularly relevant for men who have been incarcerated for decades, such as Harold Roberts. Roberts has been incarcerated 20 years and has been a student in the class for three months, learning to use Microsoft’s technology.
“I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know,” said Roberts. “I was completely illiterate to the computer.”
There are about 56 men enrolled in the class, which is split between a morning and afternoon shift. The classes teach basic personal computer knowledge that will aid them in other ways such as using the internet.
K.C. asked about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent visit to San Quentin. She also learned about the Code.7370 computer coding class and The Last Mile program that teaches incarcerated men about emerging technology.
“I think what they’ve done in terms of education is amazing,” said K.C. “I didn’t realize San Quentin was so special.”