“Young brother,” said Old Man John, trying to get my attention away from my computer screen and the furious typing I was doing. “I need you to send an e-mail to my granddaughter.”

I laughed, not because I thought it was particularly funny, but because it seemed the polite thing to do. It was obvious to everyone that prisoners don’t have Internet access in Sing Sing, so his request was clearly meant as a corny joke.

But it was not.

Old Man John continued looking at me as if offended by my laughter, so I stopped my toothy smile and gave him my full attention. At that time, he was nearly three times my age and had the demeanor of someone who required respect at all times. “Sir, I’m not able to send e-mails through this machine; I don’t even think it has a modem.”

“Yes you can,” he responded, not in an overbearing way, but like someone who’s used to being lied to. “My grandkids all have that same computer, and they all talk to each other with it. I’ve seen it in pictures. It’s that same one.”

I took a glance at the old man’s name tag, and his department number started with with an “82,” which meant that he’d been in prison since the early eighties. Apple was just about to launch their personal computer back then, and DARPA was beginning to fool around with a prototype of the Internet in Stanford. It was likely that this was the first time Old Man John was within proximity of an actual non-mainframe personal computer!

I had to quickly think of a way to explain ISPs, modems, bandwidth and the Internet to a man who has never even held a cell phone.

“Yes, you’re right, sir. This is the type of machine your grandkids may use to send e-mails,” I said trying not to sound sarcastic or condescending. “But the problem is that this machine is missing the stuff that connects it to other computers in the Internet.”

He didn’t look convinced.

I tried another route. “You know how house telephones must be connected by a wire? It’s the same thing with computers; they must be connected with a similar cable.”

He pointed at the back of the machine. “That machine you’re using is connected. I can see that black cable plugged to the wall.”

I had to suppress the urge to laugh. “No, no, no. This here’s only a power cable, like the ones used to power a TV or a radio. I’m talking about the cables that go in this spot,” I said, while showing him the slots in the back of the machine.

We were at the Transitional Services office in the school building. T.S. is one of those mandatory programs the Department of Corrections offers to prisoners just coming upstate and to those going home soon. The stated goal of this program was to teach new prisoners how to adapt to their new confined environment while helping those old prisoners to transition back into a society that had changed drastically.

This program—and almost all DOCCS [Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] mandated programs in New York State—fail miserably. The “counselors,” who are hired to oversee their effective operation, are usually not motivated to do so. Like almost all functions within bureaucracies, prison-mandated programs tend to be impersonal, with staff members who want to do the least possible work for a hefty pay. Corrections Counselors are trained social workers and, as such, should be in the business of helping other human beings, but in Sing Sing, eight out of every ten of them have no interest in helping prisoners become productive members of society.

Old Man John was the perfect example of how “deflective” DOCCS-mandated programs were. Here was a man that had over two decades in prison but had not been given an opportunity to learn how to use or learn about one of the most important tools in the 21st century—the computer. He was going home within a few months, and it was going to be as if he was let out of a time capsule from another era.

Old Man John accepted my explanation and sat down in the waiting area of the office. “Can I talk to you for a few minutes, though’? I need your help,” he said, as he took out a few papers he was carrying. He took off his coat and accommodated himself in the chair as a way to tell me, without saying it, that he wasn’t leaving until I helped him. “I just came from Attica and don’t know many people here.”

I saved the documents I was working on and turned the state computer off. Even though we were the only ones in the office at that time, he asked me to sit next to him so that no one else was able to hear him.

“You look like a smart, young man,” he stated, giving me a handwritten letter. “This is a letter from my daughter. I need you to read it to me.”

The letter was brief and took me all of about two minutes to read. It had the usual hallmarks of a personal letter but with extra attention to Old Man John’s imminent release. The tone of the letter made it seem as if his daughter wasn’t too enthused.

He gave me a writing pad and a pen. “I need you to write down what I say,” he told me, and as if imagining the questions in my head, he said, “I would do it myself, but my arthritis is acting up.”

I wanted to ask him if he didn’t read the letter himself because his cataracts were also acting out, but this would’ve been insensitive of me.

Old Man John wasn’t computer illiterate; he was illiterate illiterate.  The fact that he came to me—a stranger in prison—for help in reading and writing his most intimate correspondence made it obvious to me that he couldn’t tell the difference between English and Latin. He never actually admitted to me that he couldn’t read or write, but he knew that I knew, and no further discussion of the matter was necessary. Even though he didn’t know me, he trusted that I wouldn’t ever tell anyone or take advantage of him, and his threat radar was right.

According to BegintoRead.com

More than 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.  85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

Clearly, the system also failed Old Man John by allowing him to live an entire lifetime without teaching him the most basic element of social communication—reading and writing. And by “the system,” I not only mean the Department of Corrections, which has owned him for most of his life, but also society in general, for letting him fall through the cracks from grade school to adulthood – without literacy.

After I was done writing his letter, Old Man John didn’t thank me. In fact, he didn’t thank me the five or six other times we sat down before he was released. I was glad he didn’t do so, because you thank those who do you a favor. I was doing my duty as a fellow human being who had a chance to learn how to read and write.