Thursday, March 13, 2014

Is This A Bright Idea Or What?

I recently received an interesting proposal from Charles Zellers, Sr., a friend at the Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn. I submitted it to the Daily News-Record earlier this week as a part of an op ed piece.

Charles gave his permission to include his name and this photo. Zellers is the second from the left, and the person behind him in the middle of the picture, Edward Stewart, is the one who recently died of an apparent heart attack (see 2/28/14 blog).

From Criminal Thinking To Technology Thinking

A friend at the Buckingham Correctional Center recently sent me a thoughtful proposal that would allow inmates to have personal laptops in prison for educational purposes (without access to Wi-Fi and the internet).

For some background, this person has been in prison for 21 years since entering an Alford Plea in a case in which he was charged when he was in his mid-twenties. He had been assured by his court appointed attorney that if he would agree to a plea and serve some time as a model prisoner, that he would earn parole within a few years.

But while this individual has consistently stayed out of trouble in prison, and has been involved in all the classes and programs that were supposed to help him earn parole, he is still confined after over two decades, partly due to the Virginia Parole Board having one of the lowest parole grant rates in the US. As the following shows, he continues to envision a productive life outside of prison.

Here is a slightly condensed version of his proposal:

1. Permission to purchase laptop computers to be kept in the possession of the inmate as personal property (same as television).

2. Permission to purchase and install Microsoft Office Suite software, a self contained teaching program that does not require WiFi or use of the Internet. This would allow offenders to learn Word (a word processing program), Excel (a spreadsheet/accounting program), Access (a database program), PowerPoint (a presentation program), and Desktop Publisher ( to create flyers, pamphlets, business cards, etc.). Microsoft Office Suite software is utilized in businesses throughout the world, and offenders could learn these complex skills at their leisure in their assigned cells or dorms.

3. The Virginia Department of Corrections has contracted with JPay to install kiosks in all offender living units. Once this has been connected statewide, the VDOC could authorize JPay to offer free programs for offenders to download on their laptops, such as Productive Citizenship, Anger Management, PREPS, and GED preparation. Also, VDOC could offer for sale approved vocational and educational programs that could assist offenders when they are released from prisons and jails, such as background training for Computer Assisted Drafting, Masonry, Welding, Plumbing, Small Engines, etc. These are all tools offenders could use to develop technical thinking instead of criminal thinking.

4. Require Virginia prisons to offer a basic computer class to all prisoners capable of gaining computer skills.

5. Require all Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) to have at least one computer with Microsoft Office Suite installed in each department of every shop as a part of the training process.

If correction is to be the primary goal of VDOC, as spelled out in its mission statement, it’s hard to see any downside to this kind of program. And not only should costs to taxpayers be minimal, but this could result in huge savings as more people are released with skills to help them function as productive members of society.

Presently prisoners who have spent years behind bars find themselves experiencing a Rip Van Winkle-like lack of preparation for living in a world so different from the one they knew upon entering prison.
Programs designed to educate and rehabilitate our fellow citizens should not divide us into liberal or conservative camps. Regardless of our political leanings, we can no longer afford to waste millions in simply confining people in iron cages where they spend far too much time in mind numbing boredom and in learning ever more criminal behavior from their peers.

At the end of a recent letter, my friend lamented, “I do not understand why churches and other interested persons are not trying to help us. Many of us are praying that we can be released on parole while we are still able to get a job and take care of ourselves, while Virginia is just waiting for us to die.”

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