Tech program helps people released from prison learn computer skills

The internet was still in its infancy when John F. Coburn went to prison in 1991.

VCRs or VCRs were always popular. CDs were just beginning to replace cassette tapes and movies were still rented from physical stores like Blockbuster.

Much has changed in Coburn’s 32 years in various state prisons in Wisconsin. Released in May, Coburn returned to a very different world from where he left. Video streaming services replaced Blockbuster. And with just a few clicks of a keyboard, people can now take pictures, watch a movie, buy clothes and even a car, all on a smartphone.

This rapid technological change that many expect overwhelmed Coburn.

“When I got my phone, I didn’t know what to do,” Coburn, 57, said with a laugh. “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 efficient in using my laptop and my phone, because the smartphone is basically used for everything,” Coburn said.

Advances in technology left behind many returning citizens, like Coburn, who served long stints in prison.

Learning to use the Internet – or even basic computer skills – is essential for successful reintegration into a society and work environment that has become more tech-driven.

Without it, the risk of recurrence increases; those just released from prison may struggle to find a job, reconnect with family, or even fill out a job application.

The Bridging the Tech Gap for Returning Citizens program teaches basic computer skills and how to set up email, secure personal data, use social media, and navigate smartphones.

Ruben Gaona and Eli Rivera created the program with help from Nadiyah Johnson of Milky Way Technology Hub develop a computer initiation program for prisoners. Gaona and Rivera co-founded The outcomea justice and technology organization supporting returning citizens with employment assistance and technology training.

“Our hope is simply to get people to understand and understand what this incredible information highway is, how to access it, and most importantly, how to maximize your potential by leveraging technology,” said Rivera, CEO of The Way Out. .

Anyone who has served their sentence can enroll in the Bridging the Tech Gap for Returning Citizens program. But it is for what Rivera and Gaona have called “lifers” – those who have spent decades behind bars. Participation depends on the crime committed, as some offenses prevent access to computers.

The program welcomed its second group of 10 participants earlier in June. Participants receive a Chromebook when they complete the four-week, 12-hour program.

Rivera and Gaona are seeking funding to deliver the program quarterly.

Gaona and Rivera are no strangers to the criminal justice system. Rivera served two years in a federal prison in Oxford for making marijuana, but the technology didn’t change as quickly while he was there.

Gaona was not so lucky. He served seven years for a drug conspiracy conviction. It was a wake-up call to how quickly technology changed when it was released in 2017.

“When I left, we were still doing paper applications to apply for jobs,” said Gaona, COO of The Way Out. “Now when going out, we have to apply online.”

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 health service provider. He kept getting error messages.

“I was so nervous and so scared by everything I put on,” he said.

Gaona understands what many program participants go through. For him and other participants in the program, the biggest technological challenge came from a small device that many cannot live without – cell phones.

They weren’t that sophisticated when Gaona left. At the time, he used “chirpers”, walkie-talkies like telephones, which did not break if dropped.

Smartphones are now sensitive and complicated, Gaona added.

“When I was typing, it was (difficult) just to get used to how small they were,” Gaona said.

It became apparent that computer literacy was needed when Rivera and Gaona launched the program in March. The first day of classes was spent teaching 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 these days automatically expects someone to know how to do that.”

Teaching someone to tap is the easiest part because they can hunt and peck with just one finger, Gaona said. The challenge is to teach people how to create electronic resumes, submit an online job application, fill out a W-2 form, or set up a personal email with a username that isn’t offensive or suggestive.

“Technology, in a way, if you don’t know it, you’re going to be left behind,” Gaona said. “It will be much more difficult to find a job. Employment is one of the most important factors when it comes to reducing recidivism.”

Browsing the Internet also means participants need to know how to recognize fake websites, so they don’t fall victim to identity theft when entering personal information. It also means understanding what cookies are, what makes a strong password, and how to remember them.

“Technical hygiene is really important, to get people to understand how to be safe on the internet and not let someone take advantage of you,” Rivera added.

It’s still a learning curve for Coburn, who served time for sexual assault. He and other attendees recently learned how to Google images and insert them into a PowerPoint presentation. He has even familiarized himself with his mobile phone and is amazed by the different ways in which one can communicate with him: texts, e-mails and Facetime. He hopes it will give him the skills to get into real estate.

“I’m learning to use my phone and a laptop more easily, but it can be stressful at times,” he said, adding that even the TV remote can be difficult.

Coburn counts success in small batches, like creating an online resume with her smartphone.

“My niece taught me to do this,” he said. “I’m learning as I go, and I think the main thing that’s really going to help me is my desire and thirst to learn.”

The biggest challenge facing many returning citizens goes beyond technology.

They “pretend” to know what they are doing and struggle because it is difficult for them to ask for help, Gaona said. To help, Rivera and Gaona created the reintegration assistance application, MyWayOut which lists resources for returning citizens.

“We don’t like to share what we don’t know because we already have this stigma that we are a formerly incarcerated person,” Gaona said.

“That stigma runs really deep,” Rivera said, adding that many returning citizens are frustrated and give up. “We don’t judge (them) at all. We do it because we know it will take time. It took a long time to get people to lower those defenses.

Program participants also learn new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Milky Way Tech Hub will help promising students continue to build skills so they can apply for jobs with Johnson’s organization partner companies. The goal, Johnson said, is for returning citizens to see themselves starting their own businesses or in tech jobs, some of which only require a certificate and pay up to $100,000.

“A four-year degree isn’t the only path to success in tech anymore,” Johnson said. “What makes me really excited about technology is how it is continually democratizing and decentralizing, 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 him at

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