Steve Barrow opened his computer repair and sales business on Franklin Turnpike nearly two years ago. But soon after starting up, he saw a need for teaching basic computer skills to those recently released from prison.
Barrow offers free one-on-one computer training at his store, Hammer Hill Computers, to help returning residents reenter society. Those who have been in jail or prison, especially after a lengthy sentence, will likely have trouble operating computers and navigating the Internet, Barrow said.
“If you’ve been in prison for 20 years, you’re not going to know Google,” he said during an interview at his business last week.
Barrow does not ask what his clients served time for. That’s beside the point.
“I don’t ask what they went in for,” he said. “It’s not my business.”
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On average, he spends a total of about four hours instructing two people a week.
During a two-to-four-hour session, he teaches them about using a mouse, monitor, keyboard and the computer, as well as finding and downloading documents and creating a resume in Microsoft Word.
He also shows his clients Amazon, letting them know that they can purchase items online that may not be available in Danville.
Born in Barbados, Barrow moved with his family to New York when he was 8 before they relocated to Florida when he was 15.
When asked what prompted him to begin teaching computers skills to returning residents, Barrow recalled what his father said of inmates who reoffend after their release.
“My dad was a corrections officer in Florida,” said Barrow, 52. “He said, ‘People keep going back because they don’t have a reason to stay out.’”
In September 2020, Barrow moved to Eden, North Carolina, before coming to Danville last year.
His father’s statement touched upon the shortage of opportunity and the obstacles to finding employment returning citizens face when released from incarceration.
Barrow can impart them with knowledge that will make them more marketable to employers.
“I have a skill I can teach people,” he said.
Barrow opened Hammer Hill Computers in January 2021 and has been offering training for returning citizens for about nine months, he said.
“That’s something I saw that was a need in Danville,” Barrow said.
The intimate approach to helping citizens reenter mainstream society spares them the discomfort of having to learn in a larger classroom basic computer skills most people take for granted.
“Sometimes people just feel intimidated in a crowd,” Barrow said.
They may see themselves as incapable of learning those skills, but they have more ability than they believe, he said.
“People are very smart, but they don’t know how smart they are,” Barrow said. “They can pick it up, you just have to put it in a way they can pick it up.”
Barrow hopes to expand his services into the Danville City Jail. He has been talking to Danville Sheriff Mike Mondul about the idea.
If inmates about to return to society can pick up computer skills, that will be one less thing — besides having to get a driver’s license, a job, etc. — they will have to do upon release, Barrow said.
“When they get out, they’ll hit the ground running,” he said.
Mondul said inmates are being held in the Danville City Jail for years.
“When we hold people that long, they have a disruption of their normal lives,” Mondul said. “He can teach them a skill, potentially make them employable. It gives them a path they can go to be productive if they have a skill.”
Returning citizens typically lack employment, housing and transportation, Mondul said. But they are less likely to reoffend if they have a job, he said.
Virginia has the second-lowest recidivism rate among the 42 states that report re-incarceration of inmates within three years of their release, according to a March 2022 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections. The three-year re-incarceration rate was 22.3%, the lowest it has been in more than 20 years, according to the department.
For Barrow, teaching returning citizens the skills they need is vital to keep them from committing acts that land them back in jail or prison.
“If we don’t help that person, then that person will help themselves to whatever you have that they want,” Barrow said.
He has been providing his services for customers from the probation and parole office in South Boston, and hopes to teach computer skills for other organizations including Goodwill and the Boys and Girls Club of the Danville Area.
The services Barrow offers can help set up returning citizens for success, Mondul said.
“We need more Steve Barrows out there,” Mondul said.