April 21, 1996 in City

Computers Offer Inmates An Escape From Boredom Classes Offer Skills That Will Help On The Outside

By The Spokesman-Review

Prisoners typically shoot baskets, play volleyball, lift weights and repair furniture at Airway Heights Correctional Center. Many are killing time: 20 years or more in some cases.

But inside two rooms at the medium-security prison, about 50 inmates are hunched over computers, looking at books, nodding their heads when something pleasant happens on the screen in front of them.

They are gaining a high school education or learning how to operate desktop computers in classes taught by instructors from the Community Colleges of Spokane.

One group is pecking away at keyboards, answering fairly basic questions in math, English or social studies with a computer that acts as tutor and progress evaluator.

Next door, other students create business letters or practice setting up inventory databases. Their instructor, Steve Shumski, helps when one of the men runs into a problem.

Started 14 months ago, both classes have been almost too popular among Airway Heights’ 1,070 prisoners.

“We don’t let these guys keep coming back. They have to make progress and when they’re finished, they leave,” said Shumski.

“You’ll see many of these guys staying in this room instead of taking breaks during the three-hour class,” he said.

One student, John Lowe, has eight more years on a 15-year term for selling marijuana. He started Shumski’s class about nine months ago, mastering keyboarding. He’s now in his fourth month of learning different computer programs.

Planning on getting a degree in psychology when he gets out, Lowe said he’s deep into learning the features of Microsoft Access, a complex database program.

“I get so much out of this, I come back on my days off, or at night, and get a computer if one’s available,” Lowe said.

The basic-skills computer courses, taught by instructors Vern Nelson and Mary Johnson, help with one prison goal - the requirement that every prisoner earn a high school diploma or general education development (GED) certificate.

Nelson has found that some students get better results with computer-guided instruction than others.

One of Nelson’s students this spring had a second-grade reading level. He was quiet and withdrawn the first two weeks of class.

After taking two or three computer-graded tests, he produced one of the highest scores in class.

“This method (of learning a subject) lets someone who wasn’t good in high school gain some confidence,” said Lowe, the future psychologist. “The computer never says you’re stupid or that you have to put on a dunce cap.”

Teachers who’ve used the computer-guided method know it works only with inmates who have at least basic reading skills or who can work on their own.

After completing Nelson’s program, students move next door to Shumski’s class to work on spreadsheets and business-based databases.

The computers are closely guarded by Shumski and classroom aides. Each inmate gets access to only a portion of the files stored on a main computer that Shumski controls. No one can print a document unless Shumski approves it.

Shumski has banned only one inmate from the class. The prisoner tried to open a file he had no access to. When Shumski found him trying a second time, he was told to leave.

Prison officials have not researched how many inmates have landed computer-related jobs after taking the classes.

“I hear that some of our people have jobs using those skills,” said program coordinator David Murley. “All I know is people inside this place think it’s a good way to improve their ability to get a job. We have 50 people on a waiting list” for the computer classes.

A portion of that interest, obviously, is the desire to break up the routine of prison life, some inmates agree.

“But this is not playing around for me,” said Larry D., one of Shumski’s students who didn’t want his full name used.

“When I come in here, it’s an entirely different atmosphere than the rest of this place. I feel like this is just like any other computer classroom. I get treated just like every other college student when I’m here.”

“When I was in high school I couldn’t even draw a conclusion,” he said. Now he’s developed a talent in programs like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint and works for the prison designing brochures and fliers.

“The computer opened up a world for me,” Larry said. “If this wasn’t here,” he said, looking at the classroom, “my only other choice would be lifting weights. Or doing nothing.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Computers OK in class, but not allowed in cells

See related story under the headline: Computers OK in class, but not allowed in cells

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