Minnesota Computers for Schools trains inmates to refurbish donated computers that are then sold to schools at a fraction of the cost of new equipment.
Prison inmates Carlos Smith, right, and David Collins refurbished computers for the Minnesota Computers for Schools program at the state prison in Stillwater. Last year, more than 3,400 donated computers were refurbished instead of being destroyed.
What do Stillwater prison and a K-12 Minnesota school have in common? One has inmates doing hard time, and the other is dealing with hard times from budget cuts.
But there is other common ground.
The Minnesota Computers for Schools (MCFS) program is a non-profit organization that trains Stillwater Correctional Facility inmates to refurbish computers donated by local businesses. The computers are then shipped to K-12 schools across the state for a nominal fee.
"I think a lot of these offenders want to work on computers because they know that's what is happening in the world," said Tamara Gillard, executive director of MCFS.
In 1997, Gov. Arne Carlson had heard about a computers-for-schools program at a governor's conference in California. "The corrections there had been a wonderful partner, and it was a win-win," Gillard said. "It kept the inmates busy, learning valuable skills, and it's a good part of restorative justice."
One of the 30 inmates working recently in the Minnesota program on the third floor of a prison industries building was Carlos Smith, who said he was unfamiliar with computers when he started.
"It's kind of like living in the Stone Age," he said of computer-free cellblocks. Smith, who has a daughter, said he takes pride in rebuilding computers to benefit schoolchildren.
"It gave me an opportunity to do something that's giving back," said Smith, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence. "To be in prison, it's a chance to make something out of a negative situation."
Another inmate, Alveto Rivera, has been in the program since April and said workers feel inspired. "All of us, we fix them to the best of our ability."
Though the program has been around for years -- and some marketing is sent to area superintendents -- there is still a need to get the word out.
"MCFS can save schools a large amount of money in their technology purchases," Gillard said. "Our equipment includes tech support and a three-year warranty on computers. Schools can take this savings and possibly put it into curriculum expenses."
In some instances, schools can purchase two to three refurbished laptops for the price of one new one.
"Many schools are having to cut teachers, transportation, major class subjects. ... Schools can't afford to keep the attitude that new technology is the best and only solution," Gillard said.
On average, 35 or 40 inmates work in the program.
"We work hard with mentoring the inmates," she said. "They apply like a normal job. They will eventually test out and work side-by-side next to a senior technician [an inmate who has been refurbishing for a long time].
"We do quarterly reviews with them. They have job expectations, and if they reach their goals, they get a raise each quarter. The inmates are giving back to the community through their work."
All the old data is wiped cleaned from hard drives outside the prison walls before the computers reach the workers. The inmates do not handle any sort of data, Gillard said, nor do they have access to the Internet.
Once refurbished, the computers are placed in public, private or charter schools in Minnesota, as well as in educationally based nonprofit organizations. MCFS has worked with 121 schools across the state.
Timothy Brockman, supervisor of information systems at Forest Lake Area Schools, is one such client. He learned about the MCFS program at a conference and was impressed. He said the Forest Lake schools have been purchasing almost all of their computers from MCFS for more than five years now.
"We are extremely happy with all aspects of what we get -- the quality of the equipment, the cost savings, the fact that it is green," he said. "Money was a huge factor. We needed newer equipment, and we could not afford to purchase brand new equipment."
Gillard said MCFS makes sure it meets the specific needs of each school or nonprofit. "We'll build to that order if they need additional memory or a larger hard drive," she said.
Another inmate, Rhon Butler, has earned compliments from program managers for his dedication. Under Department of Corrections policy, each inmate can work a maximum of four years fixing the computers.
"Computers are the future now," he said. "If I could finish the rest of my time [in prison] out, I'd do it right here."
East metro reporter Kevin Giles contributed to this story. Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.