Inmates Recycle Computers for Schools

A California project to refurbish computers for schools is about to go nationwide.

by / November 30, 1996
As a society, we are famous for neighborly good deeds. For example, many government and nonprofit agencies have set up soup kitchens for the homeless, made donations of winter coats and toys for children, and pitched in to help families during fires, earthquakes, hurricanes or floods. These efforts are our most obvious acts of altruism. But sometimes a need isn't always as apparent as that associated with a disaster.

This is certainly the case with today's school-age children -- our nation's most valuable resource. According to Qed's Quick Reference Guide, dozens of states could use good deeds bestowed upon them in the form of computers. The jurisdictions most in need are those with the highest ratio of students per computer. These include Louisiana, California, Hawaii and Delaware, ranked 51, 50, 49 and 48, respectively.

California, however, may not have to bear its shameful 50th ranking for much longer -- not if organizations like the California Department of Corrections and La Jolla, Calif.-based Detwiler Foundation have anything to do with it. Detwiler has set up the Computers for Schools Program by working in conjunction with the Department of Corrections' state prison system, 52 computer repair centers (which include high school classes), regional occupation programs, community colleges, and five California Youth Authority facilities.

Founded in 1991 by John, Carolyn and Diana Detwiler, the foundation is a nonprofit organization established as a computer-donation pipeline from industry to California classrooms. "We've built a large-volume channel to funnel refurbished and upgraded technology to the schools," said Diana Detwiler, executive director. "We've grown so rapidly over the last five years that we're now the largest source of computers for K-12 schools."

This channel has been established through the foundation's ongoing efforts to build solid, win-win relationships with private industry and government organizations. Detwiler acts as a middleman to collect equipment donations, send the machines out to be refurbished and distribute them to the schools. Companies who wish to begin the process may simply call the foundation and fax over a list of the equipment to be donated. The program accepts all PCs, Macs, keyboards, peripherals and monitors.

The foundation is also very flexible in accepting donations. "They are great in working around our needs," said Barbara Carman, Santa Clara K-12 education manager for Intel, which is also a sponsor of the foundation. "For example, we were upgrading our systems to work with Windows NT and found that we couldn't use our current CPUs, but our monitors worked just fine. I called John Detwiler and explained that we had a lot of CPUs with no monitors or keyboards. He said, 'No problem, send them over.'"

Once the equipment has been properly screened, the foundation asks the donor to deliver it to a nearby vocational repair facility. If the donor cannot transport the equipment, the foundation arranges for a pickup. The minimum load size for pickups is 10 computers. The equipment is then delivered to places like Solano State Prison, located in Vacaville, Calif.

Solano's inmate refurbishing program has been one of the foundation's most successful contributors. "Solano is only one of four prisons to be involved in the program," explained Diana Detwiler. "This way the prisons are teaching inmates computer-repair skills, and we get to produce computers for the schools with no labor costs."

The refurbishing program gives inmates the opportunity to learn how to diagnose and repair CPUs, monitors and keyboards. In order to be admitted to the classes, inmates must go through a classification process and have a minimum of 10th grade reading skills, an above-average comprehension of literature and express a strong desire to participate.

"Each inmate is given a specific PC to work on," said Ray Kirkpatrick, supervisor of vocational instruction at Solano State Prison. "They have the chance to take possession of a single unit from the time it gets there to the time it's turned over to the schools. We stand behind our work, giving [each machine] a one-year warranty should it break. At this point, we have refurbished and placed over 26,000 computers in less than two years, with only a two percent failure rate. I think this means we're doing a pretty good job."

Many of the donors are also pleased with the inmate's successful track record. Last September, several of the donors assembled to meet the inmates. Those who attended were impressed and saw it as an internship-type system where inmates get an education while incarcerated, and then go back into the world with something more to offer than just knowing what's it like to do hard time.

"I believe it's ineffective to let people serve time, teach them nothing, set them free and expect them not to come back to prison again," said Carman. "I feel the state needs to do everything it can to prepare people to go back into the world and play a better role in society than they did the first time."

"It's fabulous," said Lynda Baker, supervisor of educational services for Southern California Edison, a major donor to the foundation. "We are absolutely thrilled with the mechanism Detwiler and Solano have set up. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with the prisoners. I had no idea what crimes they committed, but their enthusiasm was incredible. They couldn't wait to talk about what they were doing, the benefits and what they're learning. The instructors were like proud high school teachers. There is no better program to teach prisoners skills that will be sought after by employers."

Recently, Detwiler has garnered enough support to launch a new program that will provide upgraded -- instead of used -- equipment to the schools. "Our goal is to make the latest technology available," said Diana Detwiler. "The idea is to upgrade all 386s and 486s to Pentium machines."

Detwiler worked with major sponsors -- Pacific Bell, Intel and the state of California -- to build up enough parts and funds to get this project off the ground. "Solano is the first prison to participate in our new upgrade program," she said. "Pacific Bell donated money to purchase parts and extra memory, Intel donated chips and motherboards and the state made a $10 million contribution."

The program's success has also caught the attention of national leaders, so much so that the foundation is about to embark on a nationwide expansion program that will use the Federal Bureau of Prisons to refurbish computers for various states around the country. "We've been communicating with the White House for about a year now," said Diana Detwiler. "California's system is being used as a model of how to do it nationwide. The bureau is allocating space through pilot programs, selecting six prisons and committing resources. They're showing an unprecedented commitment to education."

Upon hearing of the foundation's expanded plans, AT&T decided to grant them $500,000 to help establish a national pipeline and coordinate with the federal prison system.

"We became aware through discussions that they had an opportunity to expand and take a successful model nationwide through some of the federal empowerment zones established by President Clinton and Vice President Gore," said Daylanne Jackson, community involvement director for AT&T. The zones -- which include schools in Los Angeles and Oakland -- are helping to fund the delivery of more computers to the schools within them. "It's just amazing what the foundation can do with limited funding in getting the equipment first to the prisons and then to the schools. Our money is only greasing the wheel of the whole process."

If you would like to know how to make a donation or would like to participate in the refurbishing program, contact The Detwiler Foundation, 470 Nautilus St., Ste. 300, La Jolla, CA 92037, call 800/939-6000, or visit their home page at . For details on Solano State Prison's refurbishing program, contact the Public Information office at 707/451-0182.

Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher of Government Technology's sister magazine, California Computer News.