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Cuesta College in California is allowing students in prison to use laptops to enhance their learning.
Illustration adapted by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

A large, neon orange sticker on the laptop read, in bold black letters: “Secure Device Inmate Access Only.”

In 2020, COVID-19 shut down face-to-face college classes offered by Cuesta College inside the California Men’s Colony state prison in San Luis Obispo, California. This summer, the classes finally resumed. 

“I missed coming in here with you guys,” a Cuesta instructor said to his class on the first day of summer session. “I really enjoy coming in to teach you all. I’m glad to finally be back.” 

There were new precautions, including mandatory face masks. And there was a rumor of another change on the way: CMC Cuesta students were excited when they heard they might be issued laptops. The rumor seemed credible because college students were using laptops at a few other California prisons, including those taking Mount Tamalpais College courses in San Quentin State Prison. 

The rumor proved true on Aug. 12, when each CMC student received a device loan agreement in the mail, as well as instructions on when and where to pick up their laptop.

“Hey, did you get one of these papers?” A student waved his loan agreement paper in the air. “We’re getting laptops!” 

The devices would be issued only to Cuesta college students. Students in other college programs were not so lucky. 

“Man, I really need to get into Cuesta College next semester,” said one of these distance-learning students. 

There was a lot of buzz on the prison yard that weekend. Students wondered how big the laptops were going to be; whether there would be restrictions and to what extent; if there would be email capabilities; whether textbooks were going to be provided as e-books or in hard copy; if students would be able to print assignments; and whether they would be able to submit their assignments online.

The following week, the students did not waste time, heading to the CMC college building to pick up their Dell laptop loaners. They returned to their housing units with their devices in hand. Onlookers could spot the large, neon orange stickers that covered the tops of the devices. 

Shortly after receiving their laptops, the students got on the facility’s secure Wi-Fi and began to familiarize themselves with their new devices. 

“Oh look! There’s the new Starbucks!” joked Joseph Gutierrez, pointing toward the students who had gathered with their laptops as they might have done at the popular coffee shop. 

The neon orange stickers now readily identify Cuesta students when they carry their laptops around, or when they gather near the “Starbucks area.” 

Getting the new computer made Matt Duronio think about his life before prison. “I was pretty computer savvy out there with the old technology. But that’s 15 years ago. Smartphones had just barely come out. Even then we didn’t necessarily submit our assignments online. Emailing our teachers really wasn’t a thing.” 

Duronio has been incarcerated for over 13 years and is enrolled in Cuesta’s introduction to statistics class for the fall semester. He said he was happy he doesn’t have to use “just Flintstone paper-and-pencil technology,” he said, and that he’s “living a real college-student life, as much as one can from inside prison.” 

Another Cuesta student, Jason Satterfield, has been incarcerated for about six years and is enrolled in Cuesta’s multicultural health class for the fall semester. The new device will help him use his time productively and “learn more than just the fundamentals of using a computer or laptop by keeping me up to date with technology,” he said. “It will help me be more productive in the workforce later on, when I’m released.”

“It makes me feel good knowing that the state of California actually cares about us getting an education,” he added. “They’re actually helping us rehabilitate ourselves. They are making an effort.”

Even those not in college were happy to see the laptops. 

“I think it’s good that people in here are getting to learn new, up-to-date technology,” said Hector Villaescusa, who has been incarcerated over 25 years. “You have to stay with the times and evolve.” 

Some correctional officers were not aware that incarcerated students would be receiving the computers. They were even more shocked that the students were allowed to take them back to housing units. 

“Do they have cameras?” one officer asked. The computers’ cameras are disabled, he was informed.

“If it can be hacked, I’m sure they will figure out how to do it,” a different correctional officer said to another. 

But a fair amount of the correctional staff interviewed were intrigued and saw the potential benefits of the program. 

“I think it’s great to have these guys access the technology we are all using out there,” one officer said. “This way, they’re not struggling as much with it when they get out, especially those that have been in prison for a long time. Plus, they are trying to better themselves by getting an education. Why would I be against that?”

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.

JC Rodriguez is a writer, poet, certified community coach and certified mediator incarcerated in California. They hold two college degrees (marketing, general business) and are a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. They are currently pursuing a paralegal certificate and serve as a jailhouse lawyer member of the National Lawyers Guild. Rodriguez is also an executive coaching team member and regular contributor to Getting Out by Going In (GOGI), a Southern California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals.