An open Dell laptop on a white surface
Photo by Erick Cerritos on Unsplash

Fourteen residents at Mule Creek State Prison received Dell laptops to use for their college studies in January 2022. The students in Faculty E were part of a bachelor’s degree program with California State University, Sacramento.

The computers arrived just as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation closed education programs and put the prison under quarantine again after another surge in COVID-19 cases. College classes had been set to begin but had to be postponed. 

“The laptops came just in time,” said Jerry King, a man incarcerated at Mule Creek.

A centralized Wi-Fi router in Building 20 allowed limited access to Canvas, the online course management system where teachers posted assignments and lectures, and students took quizzes and uploaded homework. Students could log into Canvas when they were in the dayroom near the podium. And, on a rotating schedule, students could sign on in the classroom.

The laptop program had its challenges. Though brand new, some laptops had faulty batteries or couldn’t access the Wi-Fi and had to be replaced. The first location of the router made it difficult for most students to reach the network unless they were standing by the dayroom door. Even after moving it, the network still only reached about 20 feet into the dayroom with no in-cell access.

It also took time for instructors and students to adjust to online learning in prison. In the rush to transition to the format, some assignments and quizzes were left off of Canvas, while duplicates of others were posted. Students were largely left incommunicado.

“That’s the most frustrating thing … not knowing what’s going on, not being able to ask questions of the teachers, not being able to get feedback on assignments,” said Danny Gutierrez, a participant in the program.

Furthermore, a policy change prohibited students from using Canvas’ email function during the semester, making it impossible to correspond with Mule Creek’s Cal State Sacramento coordinator. 

Unannounced changes to the way the laptops saved files also confused students, forcing them to waste several days trying to locate assignments they had been working on. At the time of this writing, some students’ files were still missing.

It is expected that the bugs will be worked out in time for future semesters. 

The prison has many more laptops available to pass out to students, according to one post-secondary and continuing education program instructor. 

But with so many college students at Mule Creek, it remained unclear how to distribute them equitably. According to sources, those taking Folsom Lake College classes were expected to have priority. But there are more students than available laptops, and the college’s classes may not be ready for Canvas.

Still, according to Dr. Joan Parkin, a retired professor at Feather River College who previously taught classes at Mule Creek, “California is so far ahead of the curve. I never would have imagined this level of technology in the prisons.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jesse Carson

Jesse Carson is the production editor for the Mule Creek Post prison newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., where he is incarcerated. Jesse hails from southeast Washington but is an Oregonian at heart. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communication studies.