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Modern way to do time

Once upon a time prisoners were sentenced to sewing mailbags or breaking rocks. But in modern California, the state has found a new task for the inmates of its penal institutions - they are repairing and refurbishing computers donated by business and industry for use in schools.

Californian schools average 39 students to every computer with a hard drive - a worse ratio than the UK's. Now California aims to rise from fiftieth to first place in the national pupil-to-computer ranking under a scheme that uses hardware recycled from business and the aid of prisoners.

The Computers for Schools scheme is the first to address both lack of funds in education and wider social issues that would otherwise require hundreds of millions of dollars in government cash. Run by a private, non-profit organisation, the Detwiler Foundation, the scheme was started in 1991 and aims to flood Californian schools with a million computers by the year 2000.

Each participating school has an action plan to get working computers and peripheral goods from businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The foundation matches each donation with a refurbished IBM-compatible 386 or faster from one of the growing number of big companies in the scheme. Each machine comes with licensed software, and includes a word-processor, banner-maker, and other classroom applications. The cost to solicit, process, and place each computer is just $20 (Pounds 12). The reason it is so cheap is because jail inmates refurbish the machines.

As well as helping schools, the scheme trains prisoners for a long-term career after their sentence is completed. Aware of official projections that say equipment repair will be the fastest-growing employment field in the next 10 years, the California Youth Authority and the California Department of Corrections have implemented computer-repair training schemes to provide offenders with an opportunity to learn a worthwhile trade by having them recondition computers for schools; it is operating successfully in at least one women's prison. A further 27 community colleges, high schools and adult vocational classes also act as repair centres.

Despite California's strong economy - and the fact that more students than in any other state will eventually enter hi-tech companies - most computers in the state's primary schools are older than the students and less than half the computers in use in schools have hard drives. Most high schools still teach keyboard skills on typewriters.

But the scheme appears to be giving schools realistic hope that limited funds don't preclude technology. More than 27,000 computers have been placed and many observers think the scheme could become the model for the rest of the country.

Mark Sealey

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