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The Struggle For Prisoner Owned Computers Continues

By Ed Mead

Prisoners are slaves of the state, a status legitimized by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These modern day slaves need every tool they can get in an effort to alter their status and to extend democracy to include all people. Computers in the hands of prisoners can be a tool for democracy. Such machines can also enable prisoners to produce quality legal work that nearly puts them on an even playing field with the state in the litigation arena. And, finally, computers can teach prisoners skills that will enable them to earn a living once released form prison.

Inmate owned computers at the Washington State Reformatory worked toward the above objectives and a whole lot more. For over three years approximately ten percent of the W.S.R. population had computers in their cells (53 computers out of a population of just over 550). During that period only one computer was lost due to a "security" related incident; an inmate had stashed a small amount of marijuana behind him monitor. On the other hand many prisoners learned valuable computer related skills, at no cost to the taxpayer, and are today earning good livings in the computer industry on the outside.

The prisoners Computer User Group has followed the progress of former computer owners from the prison. Of the dozens who have been released only one has returned to prison. This must be contrasted with the national recidivism rate of 62.5 percent. Moreover, practice demonstrated that prisoners who had previously maintained poor adjustment records did a complete turn around after getting a computer in their cell. All in all the problems were minor and the benefits substantial.

Then in the spring of 1989 it all changed. Larry Kincheloe, the former warden of the infamous gulag at Walla Walla, was promoted to the post of Director of Washington's Division of Prisons. One of his first acts was to launch an attack on the Reformatory's program of prisoner-owned computers.

The oppressor is always fearful of the oppressed's potential ability to communicate the reality of their condition to too many people. Oh how the bourgeois press would denounce the Soviet government for not allowing its citizens access to photocopying machines and computers. In truth there were not that many machines available in Russia. Yet we have them here in large quantities, but the government will not allow them into the hands of what is clearly the most oppressed segment of society.

How many members of the public know it costs $40,000 a year to confine a prisoner, or that they could send him or her to Harvard and make nuclear scientists of them for a lot less money? How many know that in return for this outrageous amount of money they get twisted individuals bent on revenge, so full of rage they take it out on their wives, children, neighbors, and the community? How many know that imprisonment only makes the problem worse, merely temporarily delays an even worse offense? These and many other messages must be communicated, and computers are an essential tool in the effort to accomplish this task.

In August the Department of Corrections will have released its final order on the computer issue. That order will officially terminate the WSR computer ownership program (the computers have been held in storage at the Reformatory for over a year pending this decision). This order must be struggled against and reversed.

New Jersey and a still too small number of states allow prisoners to have personal computers in their cells. Washington prisoners must not only get these machines back into the Reformatory, but the program must be extended statewide. There was no rational basis for taking the computers in the first place, other than it was inconvenient for the custody staff. But it is the public and social good that must decide such matters, not the laziness of prison guards.

WSR prisoners have involved their family members, written letters to lots of officials, filed a major law suit on the computer issue, and have now moved things to the point where the state senate is going to hold a hearing on the question of why DOC took the machines away. More must be done to get this situation changed. We need your help, too.

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