May 24, 2019

Somerset jail becomes computer classroom

SKOWHEGAN — The Somerset County Jail is the site of the only computer classes for jail inmates in the state.

Educational Skills Inc. of Skowhegan obtained a grant from the Carl Perkins Foundation to teach 30 prisoners basic computer skills. The grant also includes computer training time for sheriff’s deputies.

Somerset County Sheriff William T. Wright said he has been trying to find training programs that will give inmates “something to fall back on when they get out of jail.”

The tutors of the Somerset County Basic Skills Program had been teaching inmates for a couple of years. Marti Stevens, directors of the basic skills program and president of ESI Inc., wrote a project proposal called Computer Assisted Corrections Instruction.

The $13,303 grant will give inmates and the sheriff’s patrol officers the rudiments of computer literacy.

Each patrol officer received a maximum of 100 hours in computer instruction. Linda Burkhart, ESI instructor, said most of the officers were able to complete the course in 50 to 65 hours.

The inmates are alloted six hours of instruction. Carol Homer said they are taught in pairs. The inmate-students ask for the training and are selected on the basis of their release time. Those who are scheduled to get out of jail first are given the first attention on the computers.

Homer said word processing, data base and general information about computer architecture are given to the students in the “crash course.”

The sheriff said that most of the people who come into the jail do not have high school diplomas nor are they proficient in basic skills.

“You can’t run a cash register or wait on tables without some knowledge of the computer,” the sheriff said.

In recent years, Wright said, the number of people repeating time in the Somerset County Jail has decreased. There has to be an end to the “warehousing,” of human beings, Wright said.

From a culinary course taught at the jail, several former inmates have gotten jobs managing restaurants. One man arrested by the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department visited Wright the day he got out of jail. He handed Wright a diploma he received for completing a course in automobile mechanics and thanked the sheriff for arresting him. He now owns an automobile repair garage.

While the contract with the jail called for 30 students, Homer has seen 32 and has two more weeks to complete the project.

Laptop computers are used for the basic computer courses. After the students become comfortable with the machines, the basic-skills tutors use a software program to help the student-inmates with their classes.

Most of the students, inmates and deputies, have never touched computers before. After the first hesitancy is overcome, Homer and Burkhart said the students generally pick up the skills quickly.

Sheriff Wright, a former president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said the computer training in the Somerset County Jail was the only program of its kind in the state.

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