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Washington Prisoners Lose Computers, Again

In 1986 prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA were allowed to purchase computers and software and keep them in their cells. The program at its peak had some 56 prisoner computer owners in it. During this period the only problem that arose was one prisoner who hid a small piece of marijuana behind his computer monitor. As a result he lost his computer. (Had the marijuana been hidden in another appliance, either his TV or radio, he would not have been required to mail it out.) The benefits of the program were many and obvious. Prisoners learned important computer skills ranging from word processing, desk top publishing, Computer Assisted Drafting, spread sheets, data bases, etc. These skills have translated into well paying jobs for the computer owners who were later released from prison. Of the computer owners that have been released, only two have returned. No other program in Washington can boast almost a zero recidivism rate. Among those computer owners who have been released and have since been employed by the computer industry are Ed Mead, now employed in the computer field after serving an 18 year sentence; James Smith after 14 years in prison; Jeff Kiebus after six years in prison and Jeff Thompson after almost ten years. These are just the prisoners I personally have kept track of who had owned computers. A 1989 New York Times article on the program listed nine program participants who had been released and all of whom had found computer related jobs; with zero recidivism. [See also PLN , June, 1993, 'Computers and Rehabilitation" by Ed Mead.]

The WSR computer program was going well until 1989 when Larry Kincheloe became director of the division of prisons. Among his first actions upon taking office was an order banning in-cell computer use. At that time the reasons he gave were a lack of cell space and that the state's tort liability was too high. He would later tell the media that prisoners were plotting escapes and maintaining hit lists and such on computers. No proof was ever offered or provided for such claims.

The state senate corrections committee later held public hearings on the computer issue. When questioned by state senators Jim Hargrove and Gary Nelson, Kincheloe admitted, under oath, that there were no security problems involving the computers. In 1991 Kincheloe left the Washington DOC and James Spalding took his place. After continued and repeated lobbying by Jon Nelson and other prison activists, Spalding agreed to reinstate the computer program in early 1992. It took the DOC almost 18 months after that to approve a very limited version of the prior computer program. This included a ban on disks, limiting software to only two word processors, spread sheets and databases. No educational programs or any other software were allowed. The program was labeled a "pilot project" with the explanation that it would last one year, and if no problems arose it would be expanded to include the entire Washington DOC.

Among the requirements for participation in the program were prior computer knowledge, a clean disciplinary record and prison employment. Some 24 prisoners acquired computers, entirely at their own expense, shortly after October, 1993. The DOC procrastinated on making any type of a decision on the computer program and in the meantime did not allow any other prisoners to enter the program and acquire computers. At the same time, the original 24 program participants were steadily whittled down through transfers and releases until by June of 1996 twelve of us remained.

On June 15, 1996 the program participants received a memo from WSR superintendent Kenneth Ducharme stating: "The Inmate Computer Pilot Project is over. Following an extensive review Headquarters has decided to terminate the program. There are several valid reasons for this decision; however, the factor having the most impact is simply WSR's inability to adequately monitor the program. We simply do not have sufficient staff resources available to carry out our monitoring responsibilities. In spite of the fact that we were not capable of routinely monitoring your computer files, on those occasions when we did we found absolutely nothing that was illegal or unauthorized. I commend you for this." He then goes on to say that all computers and related equipment must be removed from the prison by July 15, 1996. Just like in 1989, there were no problems yet again the program was terminated.

Claiming a lack of staff resources is a poor excuse since the Washington DOC has the highest staff to prisoner ratio (1 staff to 1.7 prisoners) in the country. Poor allocation of staff is a better reason. Yet other alternatives such as finding staff willing to volunteer to carry out the monitoring functions (several guards have volunteered to do so), community volunteers willing to do so, etc., have not been tried or explored.

In a subsequent letter dated June 17, 1996, Mr. Ducharme gave the following, additional, reasons for eliminating the computer program: "(2) While there has not, at this time, been a tort claim for loss or damage of a computer or related hardware/software, as the program expands, probably to other institutions as well as WSR, the potential for tort claim due to damage or loss increases. This is true not only for hardware and software but for work in progress also." It is important to note that for the DOC to be liable for the damage or destruction of prisoner property DOC employees must be negligent in handling the property. Other ways to limit the DOC's tort liability is to cap the amount at which compensation will issue if its employees damage or destroy computer related materials. This is exactly what the DOC just did in its recently revamped property policy. That after six years of computer ownership at WSR (1986-89, 1993-96) there has been no tort claims indicates that this is an overreaction.

"(3) At the point when the program would go from a regular project to a regular program, it is probable that the program would have to at least be offered at the Washington Corrections Center for Women to establish gender parity; and probably would expand to other facilities in the interest of equal treatment. Such expansion would exacerbate the problems I have already outlined as cause for termination." If a program with the proven benefits of the computer ownership program exists, why doesn't the DOC want to make the program available to women prisoners? Likewise, the stated purpose of the "pilot project" when it was initiated in 1993 was to see if there were any problems and if there weren't, to expand it throughout other DOC facilities. After almost three years of a "pilot" project, with no problems, the decision is to end it rather than expand it.

"(4) Finally, for at least two years now, the Department has worked hard on reducing to a manageable level the amount of property allowed to offenders, particularly focusing on a limitation of expensive personal property items that contribute to tort claim losses. Allowing inmates to have personally owned computers and software is contradictory to our intents in terms of limitation on personal property and the reasons for doing so." The DOC was working on its property policy when it initiated the computer project at WSR as a "pilot" in 1993. There has been no problem resulting from the program. Tort claim losses result when DOC employees break or steal prisoner property, not when prisoners have an invaluable means of education and rehabilitation with a proven track record of success.

This move must be viewed in the context that effective June 30, 1996, the DOC has ceased to provide all vocational training to its prisoners or anything beyond Adult Basic Education. The computer program was a program that operated at no expense to taxpayers and has a proven track record of reducing recidivism among released prisoners and allowing them to gain meaningful, well paying jobs upon their release. No other DOC program can make those claims. Any claims that allowing prisoners to have computers in their cells is somehow "coddling" ignores the difference that computers represent an educational tool by which prisoners can learn and improve job skills. By contrast, televisions remain in prisoners' cells. It appears that the WSR computer program has fallen victim to the "get tough" trend, yet getting tough has nothing to do with "getting smart." If public safety and frugal use of state resources were an issue then the computer program would have been expanded to the remaining DOC facilities, not terminated. The problem here is the simple fact that the DOC is not accountable to anyone, and of course there is no reason for them to be.

Initially the DOC claimed there were "security issues" that doomed the program to failure. When pressed the DOC has never been able to point to any actual incidents (that can be independently verified). In terminating the program again the DOC has given up on the "security" argument. Now it is claiming a lack of staff, which didn't affect the program in 1986-89 and with which the program has functioned from 1993-96, and concerns about tort losses, even when no such losses have arisen in some six years of computer ownership. This is in the context that the DOC can easily require prisoners to waive tort liability as a condition of having computers.

Local media such as the Seattle Times covered the story. In response to the inquiry of why the program was terminated Tom Rolfs repeated the above reasons. He also lied by claiming that prisoners would continue to have access to computers in classrooms. The only computer class left is Computers 101 which does not teach any applications programs. Moreover, prisoners who have graduated from advanced computer courses in the past won't be allowed to take it and only class work is authorized on those machines. But this ignores the importance of the in cell computer program. Just as students learn the alphabet and how to read at school it is to prepare them to read at home, in the work place, etc. People learn how to use computers in order to actually apply that knowledge and skill. Another example of the DOC's brazen lack of candor is when they justified the termination of the program by saying it "only affected a dozen prisoners." Well, if it's only a dozen prisoners then how taxing can this be on staff resources? Obviously it is a case of trotting out a different lie for each audience.

The DOC's $745 million budget is enough to ensure we remain in prison but not a penny can be spared to ensure we don't return. The DOC's warped priorities are well illustrated by the fact that they have begun charging prisoners 50¢ a month to view TV, whether the individual prisoner has one or not. While computer skills have a proven track record of getting prisoners good jobs upon release TV viewing skills haven't landed prisoners any jobs that I am aware of. In a parting cheap shot, the DOC forced WSR computer owners to turn in their computers on July 10 and 11 and not on the 15th as Mr. Ducharme's memo had stated. Thus turning "30 day notice" into a 25 day notice.

If you would like to help, please contact Governor Elect Gary Locke at PO Box 40002, Olympia WA 98504, or your state representative if you live in Washington. Express your concern about the termination of this program and demand to know why it was eliminated given its proven track record at reducing recidivism, giving prisoners job skills, not costing the taxpayers money and posing no threat to prison security.

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