A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Before we dive in this week, we wanted to let you know that from now until Dec. 31, donations to Open Campus of up to $1,000 are triple-matched. Your support helps me continue reporting on higher ed in prisons. Make your tax-deductible donation today.

Short on time? Check out our first-person essay by Kunlyna Tauch, an incarcerated writer and student in California, who writes about getting his own laptop after 17 years in prison, co-published with Slate. Plus, see more responses from our prison tablet survey on our Instagram stories here and here

How technology is changing prison education

In the last decade, there’s been a lot of media coverage about the fact that many incarcerated people now have access to “prison iPads.” The pandemic accelerated this trend even more, with tablets becoming one of the few lines to the outside world when in-person visiting was suspended.

We wanted to know how people in prison actually use their tablets and whether they were fulfilling the educational purposes that are often touted by tech companies and corrections departments. So we sent out a survey to our incarcerated College Inside readers. We asked them to rate their tablets, share the pros and the cons — similar to a consumer product review — and tell us if and how they used their tablets for education.

We heard back from around 80 men and women from across the country who shared their insights on how technology is changing their lives inside — for better and worse. In some places, people had access to multiple devices, some for entertainment and others for college. Elsewhere, people say they have no access to any kind of technology at all. 

In September, we co-published the first story on our survey results with Slate’s Future Tense. Those responses demonstrated not only how little people use their state-issued devices for education, but also how important they had become for communication and entertainment. This week, we’ve published more of those responses on Instagram

This issue, we’re also co-publishing a first-person essay with Slate by Kunlyna Tauch, a writer incarcerated in California, as part of a package of stories that explores how technology is changing prison. Kunlyna writes about how the laptop issued to him as a student at California State University Los Angeles was the first computer he’s used in 17 years of incarceration. 

We also want to highlight some essays by other College Inside contributors that Slate published this week. Ryan Moser writes about the black market for jailbroken tablets in prison, while Lyle C. May delves into how he learned what a QR code is and shares his first encounter with an iPhone in an environment devoid of modern technology. 

Related coverage:
++“A virtual lifeline or a digital babysitter? What it’s actually like to use tablets in prison.”
++“What happens when prison tech stops working.”

The laptop that changed everything

by Kunlyna Tauch

Kunlyna Tauch, California. Photo courtesy Empowerment Avenue.

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.  

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 having 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 to four times a week. Most of our homework is done on our loaner laptops and submitted through Canvas, which can only be accessed through Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi, in turn, can only be accessed in the education department or the dayroom area of our housing unit.  

As a result, the dayroom 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.  

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. 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.

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.

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. 

Sometimes, I walk out into the dayroom 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 dayroom, 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.

Read the full version of this essay here.

Kunlyna Tauch is a Cambodian American storyteller who writes for Empowerment Avenue. Incarcerated at the age of 18, he has served 17 years and now writes about the more humanistic aspects of being incarcerated. He has bylines in Harper’s Bazaar, Business Insider, CalMatters, and Inquest.

This story was co-published with Future Tense, a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website.

There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. You can also donate here.

Interested in reaching people who care about higher education in prisons? Get in touch at sales@opencampusmedia.org or request our media kit.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.