While most companies see a pile of outdated computers as useless and destined for the nearest landfill, Stillwater Prison is proving they still have a lot of value.
Dave, one of about 40 inmates hired to work on donated computers past their prime, says he can clearly see the benefits.
"I used to do electronic repair on the outside," he told FOX 9 News. "So, I had kind of a head start. I've been in for a while."
Dave didn't want to share his last name, but he said he has been locked up for more than 10 years because of a sex crime he committed.
"At my age, you don't need a lot of time to not get out," said Dave.
Before his conviction, Dave owned a computer company, even taught at a tech school. Now, within prison walls, a program called Minnesota Computers for Schools has made him a highly-valued employee once again.
"You get up excited to come to work, instead of 'I gotta go sweep floors' or something like that," Dave said.
Minnesota Computers for Schools started back in 1997 under then-Gov. Arne Carlson. Over the years, the program lost funding, but it has flourished as the only non-profit program within the Department of Corrections.
It works like this: Computers are donated. Those beyond repair are taken apart, recycled and sometimes crushed and sold for 10 cents a pound. It doesn't sound like much, but it's enough to help pay for the rest of the computers to be refurbished by inmates and shipped out to schools at deep discounts.
"We can buy a unit for about $250 versus $600-800 on the market. So, it's all about affordability. I think being a good custodian of our resources is our fiscal responsibility to taxpayers," said Tom Kearney, principal at New Heights School in Stillwater.
Tammy Gillard, executive director of Minnesota Computers for Schools, said she has watched the program quadruple its production in a year.
"What better way for corporate businesses to turn in their replaced equipment?" Gillard said. "We are providing work skills for our inmates and computers for the schools."
Even so, Gillard says the program now has growing pains that could change things. As demand has increased in schools statewide, they are no longer getting enough donated computers to meet those needs. In order to refurbish about 4,000 computers and laptops last year, managers had to purchase used units for the first time.
"This year, we are probably looking at 4,400 systems," explained Gillard. "With that increased need building, we are really looking for business donors to be able to, as they are replacing their equipment, work with us. It's an easy process for them and they will know the community benefits from it."
At New Heights High School, every computer in the building comes from the prison. Kearney told FOX 9 News that also allows more room in the school budget to let the school update and add computers every few years.
"It's kind of like rehabilitation thing," said junior Grace Ryan. "It's better to have that rather than have them waste away in prison."
Back at Stillwater Prison, the program is in high demand even for inmates without any computer experience. Matt Dixon is in for multiple drunk driving offenses but will be free again in just over a year.
"I'm going to try and enroll in some schools once I get out and try to get a job in the computer field," said Dixon. "Use the talent that I learned and try to excel in that. I hear there is a lot of demand for computer programing, so I may be going down the right path."
Finding the right path for themselves and the students they're serving is what it's all about.
"We get an opportunity to do meaningful tasks, which makes it kind of exciting," said Dave. "Everyone benefits. The inmates do, the schools do and society does. To me, that makes it more exciting to work in a thing such as this."
If you have computers to donate, start by calling Chris Dopkins at 651-779-2816.
For more information about Minnesota Computers for Schools or how to donate click here: http://www.mncfs.org/
WHBQ-TV | Fox 13
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