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Life Inside

Does It Have Buttons? Is it Touchscreen?

Or, how I learned to use a computer in prison.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

At long last, the powers that be in the Michigan Department of Corrections are permitting us to enter the computer age: We can now purchase a cheap handheld tablet that — magically — sends and receives emails, stores pictures, and plays music. Until now, I’ve had to do my writing with paper, pencil, and an old typewriter, so this has been like discovering you had a great uncle who died and left you a yacht in his will.

The other day, three friends and I were examining one of these tablets for the first time. It did not come with an instruction booklet, and between the four of us, we have over 150 years served. You can imagine how out of touch we are with technology.

“Turn it on, let’s take a look,” I said to Gary, the proud new owner of the JPay 5 tablet. Gary is 63 and has been in prison since 1976, when Gerald Ford was president and Steely Dan was cool.

He picked up the tablet and eyed it from several angles. “I’m not sure how to turn it on, there’re no buttons!” he despaired.

Our housing unit is built kind of like a horseshoe, with two levels of inward-looking cells and a third in the middle that all the other cells face; it’s there that we tend to sit, in a communal area called base. A couple of young gangbangers nearby snickered when they saw we had no idea what we were doing.

“It’s touchscreen,” 78-year-old Gaspard said.

Better known as Gap, he’s lived in prison for 46 years, so I had no idea what made him think he knew anything about this stuff. He was born in Tunisia back when Tunisia belonged to France; when he was little, Erwin Rommel and his German tanks rumbled across North Africa.

“Oh, look. There are a few buttons, some small ones right here,” Gary said, having dug out his reading glasses. He jabbed the buttons with a finger, but nothing happened.

“I told you, it’s touchscreen,” Gaspard mumbled. I began to suspect that he might be right, until a 20-year-old kid we know wandered by and chuckled.

“The button on the end. Hold it down,” he said without stopping.

Gary did just that, and five seconds later the thing clicked on. Only click isn’t the right word, because it hadn’t made a sound. It only lit up and flashed a golden padlock on a black screen.

We all sat staring at the padlock.

“What do we do now?” Terry asked. He’s the fourth member of our hapless group, with 44 years of incarceration under his belt.

“It’s touchscreen,” Gaspard grumbled, again.

“I’m not sure what to do,” Gary said. “This is nothing like my typewriter.” He poked at the other three buttons on the tablet, but still, nothing was happening.

Since I’ve been caged for over 20 years myself, I had nothing to bring to the table. The closest I'd ever come to something like this was seeing computers on TV, and, well, what’s that old saying? It’s better to keep your mouth shut and look the fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

So that’s what I did: I said nothing as all the inmates around me hunched over their new tablets, day in and day out, either playing one of its simple games or shaking their heads angrily as they tried to figure out how.

“Shake it. Maybe it’s broke,” Terry offered. He took out his glasses (which are as thick as the bottom of an old Coke bottle) and began holding them like a magnifying glass.

“It's touchscreen,” Gaspard grumbled yet again.

Gary eyed Gaspard sideways, then shook his head. “It has buttons, Gap.” He then took Terry’s advice and began to shake the tablet.

Nothing happened.

“Let me see it,” Terry said, reaching for the tablet. He shook it twice as hard. “I do this with my radio and beard trimmer when they act up,” he added, without mentioning whether the shaking actually helps or not.

“Let me see it,” Gaspard insisted.

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“No,” Terry replied. “You're always dropping shit.”

That was true: Over the years, I've seen Gaspard drop just about everything. But for his age, he’s in pretty good shape, considering he’s had colon cancer and a couple of heart attacks and battles a severe case of COPD daily.

“Okay, then let me take a look,” I finally said.

Terry handed me the thing, which was small but kind of heavy, and encased in a soft, clear plastic that for some reason had a new-car scent.

“Are you sure there’s no instructions?” I asked.

Gary dumped everything out of the bag the device came in and rummaged through it. Though there was a small pamphlet, we found no instructions on how to get the lock off the screen.

I, too, began pressing the buttons. Nothing. I then covertly tapped the screen just in case. Again, nothing. I fought the urge to shake it and ended up handing it back to Gary out of frustration.

I never really understood before how these little handheld computers could suck people into a world all their own. I mean, like I said, I’d seen it on television, but I guess it just never sank in. Our housing unit (which, like most prison housing units, usually sounds like a zoo) is often dead-quiet these days, save for an occasional grunt of satisfaction when someone accomplishes some goal in one of the games, or gets into an argument of their own about how to turn it on.

Now, you might consider this a good thing for a bunch of hardcore inmates, and I'll concede that it’s allowed me to write this piece, store it, edit it, and send it off at will. But we’ve also lost a lot of our community since these tablets got here, as if a blanket of selfishness has descended upon us.

Just as we had begun to move on from our quest to work Gary’s tablet, the same kid who helped us earlier stopped at the table. “Like this,” he said, reaching out and “swiping” the lock off the screen with his finger, as if it were a physical object to be displaced.

We were all stunned.

“Told you,” Gaspard said proudly, a twinkle in his watery old eyes. “It’s touchscreen.”

Jerry Metcalf, 42, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich., where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.