The Internet was still in its infancy when John F. Coburn went to prison in 1991.
Video cassette recorders or VCRs were still popular. CDs just started to replace cassette tapes and movies were still rented from brick-and-mortar stores like Blockbuster.
Much has changed in the 32 years that Coburn spent in various prisons across the state of Wisconsin. Coburn was released in May and returned to a world very different from when he left. Video streaming services replace Blockbuster. And with a few clicks on a keyboard, people can now take pictures, watch a movie, buy clothes and even a car – all on a smartphone.
That rapid change of technology that many expect is overwhelming Coburn.
“When I got my phone I didn’t know what to do,” said Coburn, 57, with a chuckle. “I didn’t even know how to turn it on.”
When a friend told Coburn about a program that helps returning citizens learn basic computer and Internet skills, he quickly signed up.
“I just want to become effective at using my laptop and phone, because the smartphone is basically used for everything,” Coburn said.
Advances in technology have left many returning citizens, such as Coburn, who spent long periods in prison.
Learning to use the Internet – or even basic computer skills – is the key to successful reintegration into a society and work environment that has become more technology-driven.
Without it, the likelihood of recidivism increases; those recently released from prison may struggle to find work, reconnect with family, or even complete a job application.
The Bridging the Tech Gap for Returning Citizens program teaches basic computer skills and teaches how to set up email, secure personal information, use social media, and navigate smartphones.
Ruben Gaona and Eli Rivera created the program with the help of Nadiyah Johnson from the Milky Way Tech Hub to develop a computer skills curriculum for people who were in prison. Gaona and Rivera Co-Founder The exita justice and technology organization that supports returning citizens with job assistance and technology training.
“Our hope is to give people a basic understanding and understanding of what this incredible information superhighway is, how to get on it and, most importantly, how to maximize your potential by leveraging technology,” said Rivera, CEO of The Way Out. †
Any person who has served time can enroll in the Bridging the Tech Gap for Returning Citizens program. But it’s aimed at what Rivera and Gaona called “lifers” — those who spent decades behind bars. Participation depends on the crime committed, as certain offenses prevent access to computers.
Earlier in June, the program welcomed its second group of 10 participants. Participants will receive a Chromebook when they complete the four-week, 12-hour program.
Rivera and Gaona are seeking funding to offer the program quarterly.
Gaona and Rivera are no strangers to the criminal justice system. Rivera spent two years in a federal prison in Oxford for making marijuana, but the technology didn’t evolve as quickly during his stay.
Gaona wasn’t so lucky. He served seven years on a drug conspiracy conviction. He was rudely awakened by how quickly technology was changing when he was released in 2017.
“When I left, we were still doing paper applications to apply,” said Gaona, COO of The Way Out. “Now that we’re coming out, we need to do online applications.”
He recalled that it took four hours to complete an online application for a job as a case manager at ResCare, a home and community oriented health service provider. He kept getting errors.
“I was so nervous and so scared of everything I put into it,” he said.
Gaona understands what many in the program are experiencing. For both him and others in the program, the biggest technical challenge came from a small device that many can’t live without: cell phones.
They weren’t that advanced when Gaona left. At the time, he used “chirpers,” walkie-talkie-like telephones that didn’t break if dropped.
Smartphones are now sensitive and complicated, Gaona added.
“When I was typing, it was (hard) to just get my finger used to how small they are,” Gaona said.
When Rivera and Gaona launched the program in March, it became clear that computer skills were needed. The first day of class was spent teaching the participants how to mute their phones.
“When class started, the phones started ringing and they said, ‘I don’t know how to turn it off,’” Gaona said. “Society nowadays automatically expects someone to know how to do that.”
Teaching someone to type is the easy part because they can hunt and peck with one finger, Gaona said. The challenge is teaching people how to set up electronic resumes, submit an online application, fill out a W-2 form, or compose a personal email with a username that isn’t offensive or suggestive.
“Technology, in a sense, if you don’t know, you’ll be left behind,” said Gaona. “It will be a lot harder to find work. Employment is one of the biggest factors when it comes to reducing recidivism.”
Navigating the internet also means that participants need to know how to spot fake websites so they don’t become victims of identity theft when entering personal information. It also means you understand what cookies are, what a strong password is and how to remember it.
“Technical hygiene is very important, making people understand how to be safe on the internet and not that someone is taking advantage of you,” Rivera added.
It’s still a learning curve for Coburn, who has served time for sexual assault. He and other participants recently learned how to search for images on Google and insert them into a PowerPoint presentation. He’s even mastered his cell phone and is amazed at the different ways you can interact with it: texting, emailing, and facetime. He hopes this will give him the skills to get into real estate.
“I’m learning how to work with my phone and laptop more easily, but sometimes it can be stressful,” he said, adding that even the TV remote can be a challenge.
Coburn counts success in small amounts, such as creating an online resume with his smartphone.
“My niece taught me how to do that,” he said. “I’m learning along the way, and I think the most important thing that’s really going to help me is my desire and hunger to learn.”
The biggest difficulty many returning citizens face goes beyond technology.
They “pretend” they know what they’re doing and struggle because it’s hard for them to ask for help, Gaona said. To help, Rivera and Gaona have the return support app, MyWayOut listing resources for returning citizens.
“We don’t like to share what we don’t know because we already have the stigma of being a former incarcerated person,” Gaona said.
“That stigma is really deep,” Rivera said, adding that many returning citizens get frustrated and just give up. “We are not judging (them) at all. We do this because we know it will take time. It took a long time to get people to take down those defenses.”
Program participants also learn new technology, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
Milky Way Tech Hub helps promising students build skills so they can apply to companies that partner with Johnson’s organization. The goal, Johnson said, is for returning citizens to see themselves starting their own businesses or in tech jobs, some of which require only a certificate and pay up to $100,000.
“A four-year degree is no longer the only way to succeed in technology,” Johnson said. “What really gets me excited about technology is how it’s constantly being democratized and decentralized, putting it in the hands (and) power of the people,” Johnson said.
La Risa Lynch is a community affairs reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]