Jan. 23, 2024
A professor is attempting to teach 24 of us how to log in to Canvas, a learning management system many universities use to collect student work. She says something about saving our homework to the student cloud, but I’m not paying attention. I’m lost in my obsession with learning what these laptops are actually capable of. I open all the apps — Microsoft Excel, Word, PowerPoint. And then, momentarily, I freeze: Google Chrome. I open the app and am immediately let down, realizing I can access only a few URLs preapproved by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Still, the gates are ajar, and it feels like freedom — or at least a road there.
This is the first time I’ve ever had a laptop. I’m currently enrolled in one of the first bachelor’s degree programs inside California prisons. The program is offered by California State University, Los Angeles, and the laptop is one of its perks. The students in my cohort — the program’s third, but the first to receive personal laptops — were all incarcerated at very young ages and sentenced to prison terms that reflect football scores. I’ve served 17 years of a 50-year-to-life sentence, and none of us foresaw living past our 18th birthdays, let alone attending university. But here we are, in our senior year of a communication studies degree.
On the day I got my laptop, I returned to the housing unit skipping and giddy. I entered my cell with a Kool-Aid smile, excited to show my new Dell computer to my cellie, who had been in the second cohort of the college program. “How the hell are we in prison and you got a whole laptop in the cell right now!?” he exclaimed. When he was working on his degree, he remembered, he had to pay people who had access to a computer at their jobs to type up his homework.
As Cal State students, we attend three hours of classes three or four times a week. Most of our homework is done on our loaner laptops and submitted through Canvas, which can be accessed only through Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi, in turn, can be accessed only in the education department or the day room area of our housing unit.
As a result, the day room has turned into what I like to think of as a prison coffee shop. There, my fellow students and I work together on our laptops, sipping coffee out of our “hard-time” mugs — large, clear plastic cups with black handles that will be familiar to anyone who’s served time.
“When I work on this borrowed computer in the day room, I can see a future, one I’ve never seen before.”
Sip, clack; sip-sip, clack-clack. The sound of the keyboards typing in unison is like a symphony. The temperature inside the day room is a lot cooler than the blistering desert heat. Fourteen students huddle around tables, focused on classwork. We’re still surrounded by cell doors, huge blocks of metal that boom when they shut. There’s still a watchtower overlooking everything that we do. But it feels a lot less tense here, almost as if prison has melted away. Almost as if we’re in a Starbucks on a busy afternoon.
When I wake up in the morning, I open my laptop, log in, and see if there are any announcements from my professors. I check my agenda for upcoming assignments. I made a little book bag from some fabric I found lying around, and I use it to carry my laptop everywhere, including to my job at the prison program office. When little pockets of time present themselves, I’ll try to knock out any work I have pending. The way I see it, one day I’ll be out in society, and I’ll need to be able to work on things during the in-between moments. Here, I’m practicing for that.
After work, usually on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’ll rush home, quickly shower, scarf down a sandwich, and go straight to the education department for my weekly classes. In class, my laptop stays open, ready to take notes while the professors are lecturing. On nights that I’m not in college, I teach self-help classes — focused mostly on getting people to reflect on the impact of their crimes or express themselves through storytelling. My laptop comes with me, and I teach from the lesson plans I’ve prepared on it. The correctional officers know that these devices are for college use only, but they’ve gotten so used to seeing me carrying my laptop around that they no longer question why I have it with me. They know that it’s my own teacher’s aide.
I was incarcerated at 18, and I’m now 35. Before prison, I had to go to the public library or different community centers to use a computer. The dial-up modems screamed at anyone who wanted to surf the net, but surfing was more like sitting in the water with some floaties and a pool noodle compared to today’s internet. I got on MySpace, and that was the extent of my computer knowledge.
When I received my prison loaner laptop, I was a technological dinosaur. But I cared for it obsessively. I would wipe the dust off it daily and place it on the corner of a table in my cell, where it would sit and charge. It made my cell a professional office space.
At first, the learning curve was steep. I was double-posting assignments on discussion boards; I preferred hard copies and would complain about navigating digital books. The mouse was too sensitive, often closing windows, deleting work, and dragging documents against my will. Initially, I wrote all of my homework by hand, then transcribed it into the computer. It took about two semesters for me to get up to speed.
These days, I prefer reading digital textbooks because I can find keywords using Ctrl+F to complete my research papers. I move paragraphs around with copy and paste while I’m editing drafts. I save my teachers’ PowerPoint presentations to look back on key points. After a year and a half with my laptop, I now type 40 words a minute, and can do so without the hunting-and-pecking method I once employed. I’m proud of my typing ability because it’s something I can take with me when I’m released one day, along with the degree in communication that I’ll eventually have.
With these new skills, I’ve also grown a sort of attachment to my laptop. I’ve covered the front with stickers — Vans, SPY glasses, Paws for Life K9 Rescue — and it stores my essays for class, the canteen list I type up on Excel, and the different story ideas I pitch to editors. I feel a sort of kinship to it because of how it’s helped me grow. My laptop is a privilege that I know few incarcerated students have.
Sometimes, I walk out into the day room and sit at an available table to do my assignments. I set up my laptop, my MP3 player in my ears and my textbook in front of me. Sitting next to me is my cup of coffee. It’s a table for productivity. There, I’m the CEO of my education, my work, and my life, and I’m busy changing their course.
People walk by and ask me what it’s like to have a laptop; they sit with me and ask about their college credits and talk about their aspirations to get into Cal State LA. It’s a conversation I invite, and in an odd way, it’s a reminder of the possibilities and opportunity that this place has.
When I work on this borrowed computer in the day room, I can see a future, one I’ve never seen before, where I’m out there, in a coffee shop, working on a laptop of my own.
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