Software and hard time

Texas prisons take a byte out of crime with a computer rehab program

Alan Paden has looks like the stereotypical computer geek. His dirty-blond hair has a Bill Gates part to it, his cheeks are drawn a bit on his pale face, and he is rather soft-spoken; he clearly prefers to speak in computer language if at all. Each day, he rises at 4 a.m., puts on his best whites, wipes the sleep out of his eyes, sticks on a pair of thick circa-1980s plastic eyeglasses, and prepares for a hard day's work in a computer factory. Paden will labor away at a desk from 5 a.m. until 1 p.m.--a solid eight hours under the watchful eye of eight supervisors.

Paden is not your average working-class stiff.

His 4 a.m. wake-up call comes from a guard, his thick plastic glasses are standard institutional issue, and his best whites are a prison uniform. Paden is one of 65 inmates at the Wynne Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville who are probably more fluent in computer language than most recent college grads.

The Wynne Unit itself is an unexpected sight. The large, sun-baked red-brick structure sits among acres of flowers and trimmed grass. Inmates do the landscaping. Visitors to the Wynne Unit pass under a threshold that has "1939" carved in it. That's a lot of years of hard time, and judging by the interior of the unit, the walls may not have been painted since. From the waist up, faded gray paint chips and crackles but is quickly mopped off the glossy tan linoleum floor. Prisoners work around the clock to keep the floor tiptop clean. The bottom half of the walls is fading midnight blue, giving the building a nursery-school appearance. It's far from it. Inmates of the Wynne unit don't have cells, perhaps because the prison was built to hold 2,300 inmates and there are currently 2,616. There are several large dorm halls where cubicles that stand about 4 feet tall separate 50 to 60 inmates' beds. There is essentially no privacy. It smells bad too.

On this particular Thursday, everyone is eerily quiet. Even the segregation unit behind the dorms is still. This could be because an execution is scheduled this particular Thursday: the second in a week, the fifth in a month, the 24th this year.

But the prison computer factory buzzed on.

Most of Texas Correctional Industries are worked and operated by inmates of the Wynne Unit. Some inmates make plastic flatware and trays, others pound license plates all day long, and yet others manufacture mattresses for both prison and private use. But none of the work is as tech-specific and perhaps unabashedly beneficial to the state as the Computer Recovery Operation.

This is one of the offender work programs under the supervision of Neill Rayford, a TDCJ employee with more than 28 years of experience in correctional industry, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.

All inmates in TDCJ, with the exception of those really bad apples in the segregation unit, work in industry or other institutional jobs.

"The Texas philosophy is, if you're capable of working, you'll work," Rayford says. Since the program's inception in September 1999, TCI's Wynne Computer Recovery Operation (WCR) has received thousands of computers, fax machines, small copiers, and peripheral hardware through government and private donations. The bulk of the repaired and refurbished computers go to various public schools around the state, one of which is Rylie Academy in Dallas.

The inmates who work on computers don't get paid, but in some cases they receive a lesser sentence, and they learn a trade that could land them a job in the free world.

"They'd rather be at work than in the living quarters," Rayford says. "The industry is air-conditioned, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Other than the white prison clothes, it's an office environment."

Or at least what the rest of the world might consider an office environment to be like for computer programmers inside and out of prison walls. At the entrance of the facility, inmates walk a path lined with razor wire on either side of them. They pass through a door that has a placard: "Through these doors pass the best workers and supervisors in TDCJ."

But once inside, the words of encouragement are a little more heavy-handed. Another placard reads: "House rules: 1) The boss is always right! 2) If the boss is wrong, refer to rule #1."

All 65 inmates wear the same white prison jumpsuits. In fact, the entire place is white and sterile looking, like a biotech lab. White fluorescent lights illuminate white walls. The inmates work on white computers. But they work hard, doing jobs that are way over the heads of most free and educated people.

To date, the WCR program has shipped 536 computers and saved the state almost $200,000. The money made by the unit is recycled back into the program. And the program is growing, with plans to set up a similar one for female inmates at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville. Not every inmate is eligible to participate. Some strict criteria have to be met, including a clean disciplinary record, successful completion of a college-level vocational course in computer maintenance (taught on site), and a proficiency-screening exam.

Computer equipment waiting to be repaired lines several huge racks from floor to ceiling in the factory. The repaired and reconfigured equipment is transferred or sold at bare-bones prices to school districts, political subdivisions, or state agencies. The irreparable and obsolete equipment is broken down and sold off as scrap with the money reinvested in TCI.

Ironically, though, the inmates don't have computer privileges. They work on these machines all day long but don't have Internet access or even word-processing opportunities. But that doesn't seem to faze any of them.

Before Paden got involved with the program, he was simply passing time.

"I couldn't even type," he says. Now he does very tech-specific networking and programming. A Dallas native, Paden, 40, has served 10 years of a 40-year sentence for murder. His scheduled release date is not until September 2029, yet he says he has already been approached by some local Dallas companies with standing offers for when he gets out.

"A couple of them have starting offers of between $50,000 and $70,000," Paden says. "I learned a skill that gave me a leg up. It'll be a survival skill when I get out."

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