Nonprofit that provides computers for schools gets new start outside of Stillwater prison

(FOX 9)

After more than 20 years operating inside the walls of the Stillwater prison, a nonprofit program providing thousands of computers each year to schools across the state recently completed a total transformation.

Minnesota Computers for Schools was abruptly shut down a year and half ago for safety reasons. Now, the program is breathing new life.

"This is a much nicer workspace," said intake manager Jim Thirsten. "Easier to get to."

While his day-to-day duties have remained the same, Jim Thirsten points out reporting for work to a warehouse in Minneapolis is drastically different from the 16 years he spent helping lead the Minnesota Computers for Schools shop within the Stillwater prison.

"I think it was about a quarter-mile walk from my truck to my office," he explained. "Through many gates and security. It was very interesting."

Through what started as a state program in the late 90s, inmates worked for more than two decades learning and training for their own futures while also helping refurbish and recycle old computers, which are then sold to local schools and nonprofits at roughly half the price.

But, after Officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate in 2018, this and other shops in the industry of the area were immediately shut down.

Former correction officer Rob Cardinal decided to retire and follow this nonprofit outside the prison walls.

"It made a lot of people think about their future there," said Cardinal.

With their newfound freedom, Executive Director Tammy Gillard points out that instead of roughly 450 inmates working for wages starting at 25 cents an hour, pay now ranges from $11 on up for a workforce a quarter of the size.

There is also a variety of new training programs, certification, paid internship, and job opportunities including several for those with special needs.

"I feel like I’m making a difference which is really nice," said Gillard.

Higher payroll and rent also mean twice the revenue to keep going and more than ever, there is a dependence on grants and donated computers.

In addition, there's already talk with the Department of Corrections about returning to Stillwater soon.

“We are looking to potentially open up a shop there again this spring to bring some of those opportunities back for offenders," Gillard said.