'Tired of struggling': Montana Women's Prison inmates learn new computer skill set

2014-05-29T16:15:00Z 2014-05-30T13:24:05Z 'Tired of struggling': Montana Women's Prison inmates learn new computer skill setBy SEAN PLEMMONS splemmons@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Fourteen women Thursday became the first graduates of a computer technology skills program, but they weren’t typical students.

These women are also inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison.

The pilot program, based on the Computer Technology Industry Association’s A+ Certification curriculum offered at City College at Montana State University Billings, launched in January. City College and the Montana Department of Corrections, brought in Scott Atkinson and Phil Shelton to teach a spectrum of skills such as computer configuration and networking. They also taught hands-on skills such as physically repairing a computer.

Julie Balback, one of the inmates who participated in the Second Chance Act Technology Careers Training Program, said many students had to persevere to get through.

“Some of us, myself included, would have given up too easily when learning this stuff,” Balback said. “We had to commit fully to learning the information.”

Balback’s lab partner, Ramah McDonald Vulles, said she only knew the basics of computer use before the program.

“At times I felt like I was in over my head,” McDonald Vulles said. “I would hear things that the instructors would say and have no idea what it meant.

“It was cool to be able to put our hands inside the computer,” she said. “Learning how to take apart a computer and put it back together was great.”

Inmates who choose to take the A+ certification exam and pass it should have the skills necessary for entry-level computer positions when they are released.

The program came with its own challenges.

“I remember one night and I was crying to myself,” Balback said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to make it through the program.”

The teachers

Both Atkinson and Shelton graduated from City College with associate degrees in computer systems technology on May 3.

They were approached to teach the prison program at the beginning of the semester. They took regular classes during the day and taught at the prison multiple nights a week.

Atkinson said the inmates who participated in the program worked harder than many of the students he had while he was a teacher.

“Those people had more motivation than any student I had while I was teaching,” Atkinson said. “The kids I was teaching would always need a push to get their work done. But these women were always willing to work hard and learn as much as possible.”

Before getting his degree from the City College, Shelton worked as a security guard and as a corrections officer at Montana State Prison.

“Working in the security field for 12 years made me want to do something different,” Shelton said. “Teaching the class was a challenge, but it helped to be patient.”

Even the instructors had some difficulties. Because there is no Internet access in the prison, Atkinson and Shelton had to improvise.

“We were used to researching in our classroom when we were learning the skills,” Shelton said. “At the prison we had to bring in all the materials necessary to teach the content without the Internet. Sometimes there was information missing and we had to teach it on the fly.”

McDonald Vulles said that both instructors were helpful in teaching the material.

“They were incredibly patient with us while we were learning the information,” she said. “They put in a lot of time and effort and were very willing to help us out whenever we needed it.”

Now that the program is complete, Balback and McDonald Vulles plan to take the A+ certification exam so they can use it when they get out of prison.

“I want to teach my kids all of these skills,” McDonald Vulles said. “If you have any type of computer skills today, it gives you an advantage to succeed.”

Shelton hopes that the program will show the inmates that they can have lives outside of prison.

“I don’t want to see any of them back in prison,” Shelton said. “I hope they can find a job, whether or not it’s in IT. They have a new skill set and they can use that.”

Participants in the programs weren’t the only ones who benefited. Atkinson said he learned a lesson himself while teaching the inmates.

“We all have obstacles getting in the way, whether those are emotional or physical,” he said. “There are ways of overcoming those. Even in a situation like this.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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