Computer links prison inmates to new career

Though they may have never heard of him, there are 30 men in Cellblock D at the state penitentiary at Stillwater, Minn., who hold tenaciously to the sentiment behind Jackson's statement.

They are enrolled in the only privately funded, inmate-run prison education program in the United States. Their goal is to receive a college degree.

Called Insight Inc., the college program was conceived by Stillwater inmate John P. Morgan in 1973 as he lay in solitary confinement while coming to terms with his life and the crimes of kidnap and murder he had committed. Rather than commit suicide in his dark cell, Morgan says, he decided to make something of his life. For the last seven years that something has been president and executive director of Insight.

Inmates in the program study through the usual methods for education in prison: correspondence courses, audiovisual TV courses, and actual classroom sessions. But in addition, there is a unique element for a state penitentiary setting. It is Control Data Corporation's computer-based educational system called PLATO, which ties inmates to the outside world by a two-way, telephone-terminal transmission. The subject: computer programming.

To participate in the program, applicants must pass a battery of tests given by the University of Minnesota. An inmate must have at least one year left on his sentence and have spent six months in Stillwater with a satisfactory behavior record.

There are some ''rigid social rules,'' says Morgan. ''Any fighting, threats, boisterous behavior or use of drugs will result in a student being removed from Cellblock D and the Insight program. We have too much at stake and too many individuals inside and out of the prison counting on us to let anyone jeopardize it.''

An executive committee made up of inmates and prison officials interviews applicants. Once accepted, the student signs a contract agreeing to continue his full-time, eight-hour-a-day job within the prison, plus carry a full class load of 12 to 16 credits and maintain a C average.

Insight's annual budget is $128,000. Money is contributed by a number of corporations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, including Control Data, 3M, Burlington Northern, General Mills, and the St. Paul Companies, as well as by private foundations. An annual celebrity fund-raising golf tournament is also conducted. No government money is involved.

Some 114 inmates have participated in Insight, out of an average prison population of 1,100. Twelve prisoners have obtained their college degrees while still in prison, and the average grade score has been 3.25 (B+) out of a possible 4.0. The colleges participating are the University of Minnesota, the College of St. Thomas, and Metropolitan State University.

Morgan says he receives a salary of some $600 a month, on which he pays taxes and is using to buy a house on the outside when he comes up for parole in 1990.

But the Insight program benefits more than inmates of Cellblock D. Once trained in computer programming, the inmates, like George Chamberlain, can train others.

''I met George Chamberlain on a Saturday morning,'' says Charles Schneber. ''We've been friends ever since.'' That was a year ago.

''George came into my life in the middle of the class. I had to finish in six months, and I never would have without him,'' says Jose Ocasio. ''We are close friends.''

''George helped me with my studies,'' says Barbara Michele. ''More important, he understands my situation. We're friends.''

None of these people have met Chamberlain face to face. As an inmate in Cellblock D at Stillwater prison, he can't get out to visit them. They're homebound, each with a disability that severely limits their movement.

Chamberlain is a computer programming instructor who works for Insight. Control Data Corporation has a contract with Insight to provide instructors for its Homework project, a job preparation program to train the homebound and disabled in computer programming, technology, and operations.

''The Homework concept is really a fantastic idea. I can't tell you what it has meant to me,'' says Mr. Schneber, a disabled Vietnam veteran living at home in Pennsylvania. ''A few years back I had very little to look forward to. The option of stuffing envelopes didn't give me much of a challenge.''

And like any good student, Schneber was often frustrated when he had a question and couldn't get an answer. His first Homework instructor worked an 8 -to-5 shift.

''I'm here all the time, and when I have a problem I don't understand Friday night, it's tough waiting until Monday morning. George's circumstances have him there all the time and he really wanted to help, he wanted me to learn the material,'' he says.

''People that go home and close up after their eight-hour day try hard but they just don't know about our problem,'' says Barbara Michele. ''I found an instant empathy with his condition. And he understands our situation.''

''He has a fantastic sense of humor,'' says Mr. Ocasio, a disabled Korean war veteran. ''I'd call him late at night on the PLATO program. My funding was going to run out in less than six months and I needed to complete the course. George was there all the time. He knows his stuff.''

Chamberlain's classroom is a Control Data PLATO computer terminal with a telephone hook up. Access to a central memory allows him to electronically correspond with his students. (He works with more than 17 but has five directly assigned to him in Insight's contract with Control Data, each of whom he is responsible for grading.)

''I'm embarrassed to have to tell people -- my students when they ask -- why I'm in jail,'' says Chamberlain. ''But I'm thankful for the chance to help someone who is confined through no fault of their own.''

Both George and each of his friends share a common sense of purpose. Their fulfillment comes in helping each other be productive members of society again.

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