Tennessee prison educator’s knack for IT led to his unexpected career path
Posted on
April 5, 2022

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Tennessee, the heartland of country music, is one of the most beautiful places in the world to visit. The State derives its name from the Cherokee village of “Tanasi” (“where the waters meet”) and is one of two states that border eight other states. (Missouri is the other one.)

The state is also the home of many famous Americans, including Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier; World War I’s Greatest Hero, Alvin York; the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin; two U.S. presidents, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson; and one almost-president, Albert Gore Jr.

The Volunteer State is also a hotbed of innovation having hosted the creation of a number of well-known products that are a part of our modern world. This list includes tow trucks (1916), miniature golf (1927), trash dumpsters (1935), touchscreen monitors (1971), and, in 1916, the world’s first self-service grocery store, the Piggly Wiggly.

Tennesseans have also catered to America’s sweet tooth, inventing tasty goodies such as Cotton Candy (1897), Moon Pies (1917), and Mountain Dew (1940). The most important development in confectionary history happened in Nashville in 1912, when the Standard Candy Company had the wild idea to mix caramel, marshmallow nougat, peanuts, and milk chocolate together to create the world’s first combination candy bar, the Goo-Goo Cluster.

(Prior to this world-changing breakthrough, candy bar manufacturing consisted of bars of only chocolate, caramel, or taffy.)

Another important first for Tennessee is being the first state in the Union to offer free college educations to its citizens. Thanks to efforts of former governor Bill Haslam (2011-2018), every man, woman, and child living in the state can attend community college or trade school without worrying over tuition.

Haslam’s education reforms were part of the Tennessee’s economic development plan. The goal was to attract businesses to the state by increasing the skills and education levels of the workforce. Succeeding governors have continued to prioritize education for all Tennesseans — including one often overlooked group, people behind bars.

The state of prison education

Inmate education throughout the U.S. prison system is abysmal. Less than five percent of the two million people behind bars have access to meaningful and consequential education that can make them employable upon release.

Current Tennessee governor Bill Lee is focused on improving public safety by ensuring incarcerated individuals “have a pathway to a productive life beyond crime.” Lee’s efforts include an increase in mental health counseling for prisoners and funding to provide the equivalent of a high school education to those who want one.

“More than 30 percent of inmates in Tennessee do not have high school education equivalency,” said Lee in a 2019 press release. Education that gives inmates employable skills has proven to be the best way to keep inmates from returning to jail. According to the governor’s office, inmates who receive quality education have a 43 percent lower chance of re-entering prison than those who do not receive similar education.

In Tennessee, prison education is more than just literacy and basic math. The legislature appropriated $10.5 million and partnered with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to enable prisons to offer career and technical credentials for disciplines like information technology and construction.

Offering education to inmates, however, requires more than funding and well-wishes. Good people are essential. It’s these “boots on the ground” individuals who face the daily challenges of implementing the vision for prisoners. Fortunately, the Great State of Tennessee has a lot of good people working hard to meet state goals for inmates. And one of the best is Dakota Copeland.

A transplant to the state by way of the U.S. Army, Copeland is originally from Sand Springs, Okla. Upon completion of high school, he signed up with Uncle Sam for a three-year hitch. Part of that time was spent as an infantryman in Afghanistan, which he really enjoyed. “Afghanistan is a beautiful place,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting the people and serving there with my buddies.”

He was stationed in Nashville when his service ended. Returning to civilian life, he began looking for a career. After working a series of what he calls “dead-end” jobs, Copeland headed to the western part of the state figuring it was a more affordable option for him. His next move was enrolling in the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) at Ripley to study information technology.

“Computers were something that I had always been good at, so I figured I’d go for it,” he explained.

Copeland completed his studies in 2018 and began working a regular 9-to-5 job in IT. Then, in late 2020 while surfing the net, he stumbled across a posting to teach computers at the state penitentiary. “I was just browsing the web and saw the job,” he said.

“I thought I would be a good fit. It sounded kind of cool, kind of a new thing, the pay was decent, benefits really good, and not too far from my house.” Copeland applied, was interviewed, and soon accepted an offer to be West Tennessee State Penitentiary’s computer technology instructor to female inmates.

Starting from scratch

Landing the job was only the first step. The program was brand new at the time and needed to be built from the ground up — a process that Copeland is grateful to have been part of. “I was lucky that I helped set up our program from scratch, because I was able to get the things I wanted for my classroom from the get-go and didn’t inherit someone else’s problems or equipment,” he explained.

Copeland came on board in December 2020 and worked feverishly, writing curricula and preparing his classroom for a term that would begin January. “It was like jumping into the deep end of the pool,” he said. “I had to research what I needed, request it from admin, get approval, then order it and then set it all up when it arrived.”

Due to its function and clientele, prison programs prohibit certain items that students who do their learning in a traditional schoolroom take for granted. Everyday items such as binders, binder clips, pens, and highlighters are strictly verboten.

Officials were also cautious about approving computers and other equipment requested by their new instructor. Fortunately, Copeland has a tenacious streak. “He just doesn’t take no for an answer,” said Lauren Solina, the Workforce Development Coordinator of correctional education and an advisor to the program.

“Dakota was born to be an educator. He is passionate about teaching, about his subject matter and always looking for ways to enhance his class with the newest, next best thing. I am so glad to have him here.”

When the term began, Copeland was ready to go academically, but nervous about what he might deal with in class, especially since all of his students are serving time for serious offenses. “I had no idea what it was going to be like on that first day,” he explained. “I thought it was going to be like the wild wild west, but honestly, it’s pretty chill for the most part.”

Classes behind bars

Copeland was also surprised to learn that a significant portion of his students were not being paroled any time soon. Each has been inside for at least a decade, and several are lifers. “Originally, I thought I would be teaching inmates who had just a couple of years left on their sentences,” he said. “It still astonishes me that most of my students have sentences longer than 5-10.

“Teaching in a rehabilitation center, I really thought my students would be getting out soon after being rehabilitation.”

Copeland is quick to adapt. The length of time remaining on an inmate’s sentence makes no difference in how he teaches IT. He instructs students as if they were leaving shortly and would be interviewing for a job as soon as they are out.

The IT program isn’t open to just any inmate, either. Each potential student is required to have previously completed a high school diploma or GED, and also be well-behaved with no major write-ups for bad behavior for the previous six months.

Applicants also need Copeland’s personal approval. “I have the opportunity to interview each inmate before they can enroll in class,” he explained. “That helps me gauge where they are in their abilities so I will know if they are able to learn the subject or will need extra help.”

Inmates fortunate enough to join the program are required to abide by two rules with no exceptions. Number one is, whatever happens outside of class, stays outside of class. “I remind them that we all have problems and bad days,” explained Copeland. “But no matter what, you do not to bring any of that to the classroom. The classroom is for learning.”

The second rule is respect — and applies to everyone involved. It’s mandatory both for the students and for Copeland as their instructor. “We all have to show respect for others,” he said. “Just because they’re in prison doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.

“Even though I haven’t been in prison, they respect me for my IT knowledge and skills, and I always give them my respect back.”

There is also the unwritten rule of prison life: Never ask why someone is locked up. “It’s a cardinal rule not to ask,” Copeland explained. “It’s considered very rude to ask.”

Certification and dad jokes

An easygoing guy, Copeland still has to be firm when it comes to classroom management and is careful that inmates remember boundaries. “I’m the teacher and they are students,” he explained. “I can’t look soft in front of them either. If I tell them I’ll write them up for something, I follow through.”

Copeland does a great job creating and maintaining an atmosphere of learning. His classroom is well stocked, and students can practice on computers — as well as with an ample supply of motherboards, switches, routers, and even an open-source firewall.

He even set up a private LAN for the students to test-drive and practice the network and security skills they are learning. “We do a lot with a little,” he said. “Thanks to the warden, who is supportive of what we’re doing, we have a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t typically see in a prison.”

The IT program is one year in duration with classes held Monday through Friday, from 7:40 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. During that time, the students are immersed in technology, progressing over the course of the program from basic IT to more advanced topics such as switch and firewall management and setting up and troubleshooting networks.

Certification also plays a role. Students have the opportunity to earn the CompTIA trifecta of core IT credentials, A+, Network+, and Security+. Copeland uses TestOut certification training products to help them prepare for the CompTIA certification exams. Students in his classes learn core IT skills using TestOut's PC Pro, Network Pro, Security Pro, and IT Fundamentals Pro courseware.

Each TestOut course also has a TestOut certification associated with it, and Copeland's students have had excellent success passing those certification exams. Copeland said that earning the TestOut credentials gives his students a real morale boost. Good certification outcomes can also have a positive impact on the future for inmates: Copeland said that success in certification carries weight with the prison's parole board.

In addition to learning, Copeland said there is also a surprising amount of laughter. “A lot of my students are pretty funny, and there are some interesting stories.” He too isn’t shy about contributing to the jocularity peppering his lessons with corny dad jokes that are sure to get a laugh, or at least a groan.

“Hey, prison is a tough place for anyone,” Copeland said, “and I’ll do anything I can to brighten up my students’ day while they’re in class.”

Teaching in a prison comes with a variety of restrictions and personal intrusions. Copeland is limited in the number of items he can take to class, and they must be carried in a clear plastic bag. Then there are the multiple security checkpoints where he is frisked to ensure he isn’t carrying contraband. “It is what it is,” he said. “I understand why it’s done, and I just live with it.”

A rewarding career choice

It’s ironic that Copeland never considered teaching as a career, especially since the job fits him so well. His original reason for accepting the position was to gain managerial and supervisory experience. Fortunately for all involved, his desire has completely changed since entering the classroom.

“I realized that I really like teaching people how things work,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling when I teach people something they don’t know. It’s that ‘aha’ moment. Although I never considered teaching, here I am, and I love it!”

Copeland is both optimistic and realistic about what he is doing. He wants the best for his students, teaching them skills that will enable those who are eventually released to provide for themselves when they leave prison. He also understands, however, that education alone will not guarantee their success.

“I teach all I can and so I want my ladies to succeed when they get out — but ultimately it’s up to them. Education will get them just so far, they will have to hustle to make it and sadly, some of them won’t make it.”

From personal experience working in and around the criminal justice system, I can tell you that life behind bars is anything but easy. Sure, they provide medical care and three squares a day, but more is always needed.

Copeland and the State of Tennessee are working hard to give inmates the rarest and most valuable gift of all: hope. Even more than computer and technology skills, Copeland is imparting the belief that things will get better and, more importantly, the understanding that one’s whole life doesn’t have to be determined by earlier mistakes.

Educating inmates is always going to be an uphill battle, but with people like Dakota Copeland in the classroom, there will be victories. A message his students see every day is a quote from former congressman and motivational speaker Les Brown, hanging on the classroom wall: “Someone's opinion of you doesn't have to become your reality.”

About the Author

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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