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

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Twelve hundred incarcerated students in Washington state had their devices confiscated after an electrical engineer in Boston tweeted about trying to unlock a secure prison laptop he bought on eBay. Copublished with the Seattle Times
  • Read this first-person essay by Phillip Vance Smith, II, an incarcerated writer in North Carolina. He shares why he enrolled in a prison seminary even though he’s an atheist. 
  • ICYMI: Read our story on Johnny Le’Dell Pippins’ journey from prison to a Ph.D. Last year, Pippins received clemency from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to start his doctoral program at the University of Iowa. Also check out the embedded audio story produced by our partner WBEZ

An engineer bought a prison laptop on eBay. Then 1,200 incarcerated students lost their devices.

When Wenting Zhang bought a clear plastic laptop on eBay, he had no idea about the chain of events he would kick off. The device turned out to be a secure computer used for jail and prison education, and he was initially unable to get past a black login screen.

That’s because the laptop was working the way it was supposed to. Many typical features, such as a USB port, were missing because the device is designed to restrict users’ ability to communicate with the outside world.

Zhang, an electrical engineer in Boston, decided to post about trying to unlock his Justice Tech Solutions Securebook 5 on the social platform X. The thread went viral — also catching the attention of Washington corrections officials, who have used the device for college programming since 2020. 

Of particular concern was an article about Zhang’s thread published on a hacker website that shared the default password for the underlying software that starts the laptop’s operating system, presenting what the Department of Corrections considered a security concern.

The department then announced Thursday, five days after Zhang’s viral post, that it would collect all secure laptops from incarcerated students statewide “to provide an immediate system update.” By Saturday, corrections staff had collected around 1,200 laptops, spokesperson Chris Wright said in an email. 

Wright confirmed no one incarcerated in Washington prisons had attempted to unlock their devices but said the decision was “made out of an abundance of caution.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether other states whose corrections departments use Securebook 5 laptops have also pulled the devices. 

Wright said the department was concerned students could use the default administrative password to reset the laptops and “remove the security framework,” allowing them to install new operating systems and “override all security protocols.”

Securebooks, like most prison tech, are programmed to only boot up from the operating system that’s installed on them, said Jessica Hicklin, the chief technology officer at Unlocked Labs, a St. Louis education tech nonprofit that uses Securebooks and other Justice Tech hardware. 

That operating system is set up so the user can only access certain programs and files. “Most corrections departments are nervous about incarcerated users having full access to administrative functions of the operating system,” she said. 

Hicklin, who’s formerly incarcerated, said the Washington officials’ decision to pull the laptops was unnecessary given the limited amount of potential for actual harm. “As long as the network is properly secured, then there is no real credible security threat,” Hicklin said. 

But former corrections officials from Washington and other states found the decision reasonable, given the possible security concerns.

The man who made the devices said there’s little someone inside could actually do with a hacked Securebook. They’d need to fashion a USB port, be able to install another operating system, and get access to a docking station, said Jeremy Schwartz, Justice Tech president. Even when the devices are docked, they’re not connected to the wider internet. 

“A lot of states actually felt very good when they got into the technical details of the levels of security that were there,” he said, noting that the work of outside hackers couldn’t be replicated in a prison environment. “That’s why it went viral.”

Read the full story here

Related coverage: ‘How getting access to a computer changed my education in prison—and my future.’
A virtual lifeline or a digital babysitter? What it’s actually like to use tablets in prison.
What happens when prison tech stops working.

I’m an atheist. Here’s why I enrolled in a prison seminary.

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This week we’re featuring a first-person essay by Phillip Vance Smith, II, who is incarcerated in North Carolina. He doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in education. (Also check out this review of Phillip’s recent collection of poetry, “LIFE: Learning Instructions For Everyone…In Prison and Out” released by Bleakhouse Publishing earlier this year.)

I walked laps around the beaten red clay track on the rec yard at Nash Correctional with a Muslim friend who told me, “You’ll learn a lot in the seminary, but the professors have no problem condemning you to hell for not following Christ.” He was in his second year in the North Carolina Field Minister Program. 

As an atheist considering enrolling in the program, I needed to learn everything I could. “So they accept all faiths, but they don’t tolerate those faiths once they’re in school?” I asked.

“It’s not about what they tolerate,” he said. “It’s about you tolerating what they preach in order to get a college degree as a man serving life without parole.”

He was right. I had no other option for education. North Carolina ended state funding for higher education in prisons in 2011, opting instead to offer only vocational training at select facilities. And while higher education in North Carolina prisons might be expanding with the return of Pell Grants last summer, those serving longer than 10 years, especially lifers like me, are currently excluded. If I wanted a college degree, I had to enter the field ministry program. Graduates of the program earn a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry through the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a regionally accredited private not-for-profit college.

Read the full essay here

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Texas: For El Paso Matters, Daniel Perez writes about a new agreement between El Paso Community College and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to teach incarcerated students welding skills to prepare them for in-demand, good-paying jobs upon their release. 

California:A new $30 million state program, called Hire UP, is an experiment modeled on California’s many guaranteed income programs. It focuses on students who are formerly incarcerated, as well as former or current foster youth, and those receiving benefits from the state’s cash aid program for low-income adults with children. Ten community college districts received the money and some schools are beginning to distribute it now, writes Adam Echelman for Calmatters.

“Her voice is so cold”

If you’ve ever gotten a call from prison, you’ll be familiar with the feminine, robotic voice that informs you that the call is being monitored and recorded. Spoon Jackson, a spoken word poet and musician, recorded an ode to the “Computer Lady” via phone from Solano State Prison in California.

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.

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