Omar Sharif Brown stands six feet tall, weighs well over 250 pounds, and has an intense stare. Here at the Soledad Correctional Training Facility, Mr. Brown, who was convicted for murder, is carefully replacing parts on a computer keyboard.
Brown also reconfigures computer hard drives and can explain the intricacies of software crashes. The former high school dropout is working in an innovative prison program to rehabilitate inmates by teaching them to repair computers. Refurbished computers are distributed free to schools throughout the state.
"This program gives people the ability to have dignity in their lives," says Brown. "It gives people the ability to go back into society and contribute, not become a burden."
The California Computer Refurbishing Program has provided 35,500 computers to schools since its founding in 1994. Private companies donate computers, prisoners upgrade them, and nonprofit groups distribute them to K-12 schools.
While the prison program has received widespread praise, the main nonprofit foundation distributing the equipment has stirred controversy. Critics say the Detwiler Foundation has inflated the number of computers it has claimed to distribute and illegally required schools to raise money to receive the computers.
About 1,000 inmates at prisons throughout the state currently help recondition computers, according to Ray Kirk- patrick, the program's northern California coordinator. This program provides prisoners with marketable skills, he says, unlike many other prison work projects.
Mr. Kirkpatrick says the Department of Corrections doesn't track what happens to inmates who have left the program. But Roger Kolbo, supervisory instructor for the program at Soledad, keeps informal records. Of 42 inmates who completed the program and were released, he says, 11 are working in the computer field, and only two have returned to prison. Statewide, California prisons have a recidivism rate of 56 percent.
Refurbishing helps rehab
Mr. Kolbo acknowledges that training sometimes-illiterate prisoners in the fine points of computer repair isn't easy. Former drug dealer Colin Nelson, for example, had never operated a computer in his life.
"When I first saw a DOS prompt," he says, "it was Greek to me. I've crashed my system so many times."
The tall, slender man hunches over to inspect a recalcitrant computer printer; he can't yet figure out why the machine won't print.
Mr. Nelson and the less-experienced inmates in the workshop rely on other prisoners to resolve technical problems. Men serving life sentences form the core of tech support because they stick around longer.
Nelson says the computer refurbishing program helps in rehabilitation. Before his arrest in 1994, Nelson thought he had two choices in life: "dealing drugs or flipping hamburgers. I didn't want to flip burgers."
But today Nelson sees the want ads posted on the prison bulletin board offering $25,000 per year salaries for computer-monitor technicians in Silicon Valley. Based on the skills he's learning, Nelson says, "I won't be dealing drugs anymore. I found something I can make a living at."
He concedes that rehabilitation requires more than just a decent paying job. Prisoners must want to change, he says. "I've been doing time off and on for 20 years," says Nelson. "It gets old. You get tired of all the destruction in your life."
Some prisoners assemble new computers under the auspices of Smart Valley Inc., a Silicon Valley nonprofit group. In 1996, as part of its project called PC Day, prisoners assembled 3,000 new computers with parts donated by various high-tech companies. The advanced computers were then distributed free to schools in northern California.
Companies such as Intel and Microsoft donated parts knowing that thousands of students - and future customers - would see their brand names, says Karen Greenwood, group project director for Smart Valley. "The education market for computers is exploding right now."
The donor companies "are also concerned about the poor state of technology in California schools," she says. Company executives are making donations so that "their own kids and future employees" will have the skills to work in Silicon Valley in the years ahead. Smart Valley is now organizing a second PC Day that will distribute 6,000 computers to children throughout the state.
The La Jolla, Calif.-based Detwiler Foundation takes a somewhat different approach by having prisoners refurbish old computers. It solicits private companies to donate computers with at least 486 megabytes. The foundation's program is able to stretch government dollars that might otherwise have been used to buy new equipment, says Jerry Grayson, a regional director for Detwiler.
"It's the difference between taking $700 and buying one computer or taking the same $700, using computers that are donated, and turning out three or even four computers," he says.
But controversy has swirled around the foundation. Last year former employees charged that Detwiler had inflated by 60 percent the number of computers distributed to schools.
Past differences resolved
As of last month, Detwiler says it has distributed 40,000 computers since its founding in 1991. Prison officials say they have provided only 35,500 of the Detwiler computers. The foundation maintains the other 4,500 were passed out before the Department of Corrections (DOC) got involved in the program.
Earlier this year the DOC stopped accepting computers from Detwiler because the foundation was asking each school to raise $800 toward the cost of the refurbished models. That violated a state law that prohibits charging money for donated goods worked on by prisoners, according to DOC officials. Detwiler has since stopped asking for such money and agreed to issue refunds.
Past differences with Detwiler are being resolved, according to DOC's Kirkpatrick. "We had a rough spot, but we worked through that," he says. "I think they've done a good job."
The Detwiler Foundation has initiated similar prisoner computer-refurbishing programs in Hawaii and Minnesota.
Back in Soledad's workshop, former drug dealer Nelson has finally solved the case of the recalcitrant printer. The previous owners had fed in the wrong kind of paper, and it stuck to the rollers.
"They threw away the printer," he says, "But with a few hours work, and a spare roller, we've rebuilt a new printer for a school."
Nelson says he grew up in an abusive household and was a drug addict by the time he was 13. "I never had many educational opportunities," he says.
"A lot of that was my own choice," he continues, "but this program has changed all that.... Every prison in the country should have a program like this."