Steve Barrow. Photo by Grace Mamon.

In the back of Steve Barrow’s computer shop, there’s a room with seven computers, headsets and a TV mounted on the wall where Barrow displays his presentations. 

This is his training room, where he teaches computer basics to people who have recently been released from incarceration, called returning citizens. 

Barrow is the owner of HammerHill Computers in Danville. He fixes and sells technology equipment out of this location, but it is also a homebase for his computer training program. 

Originally from Barbados and a Florida resident for many years, Barrow came to Danville a year and a half ago, looking to bring his passion for community service to his new home. 

The city’s sheriff office is working on revamping its own reentry program, but Barrow took it upon himself to be another resource for returning citizens looking to build a skill upon their release. 

“I don’t have money to just hand out, but I have a skill that I can teach,” Barrow said. 

Everyone tells returning citizens not to go back to jail, he said, but it’s not that simple. 

“Some people have been gone for 20 years,” Barrow said. “They’re used to finding a job in the back of the Sunday newspaper. Now it’s on Indeed, and they have no idea how to go about that.”

Slade Baker. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Barrow works with his office manager, Slade Baker, to teach returning citizens how to do things that are often taken for granted, like using a computer mouse and conducting a Google search. 

This class is a one-day four-hour “bootcamp” session, but anyone who has a follow-up question or needs a refresher can call or come back in, he said. 

Barrow has only been offering the class for about two months, with usually just a few students at a time. But he said he hopes to see the program grow as it continues. 

He holds the class in a room that used to be his service center, he said. 

“This is where we would come in to fix computers,” Barrow said. But when he decided to offer the program, he converted it into a training room. 

The training room has seven computers, each with its own headset. Barrow said that once he gets more money to run the program, he wants to give each customer their own headset to take home. 

Right now, the entire program is funded out of pocket and is free for the participants, Barrow said. He’s working on getting grant money to help the program continue and grow. 

“We’re not even looking for a major amount,” he said. “If we could get, for example, let’s say a $10,000 grant, that could go a long way to helping us expand.”

In addition to the basics, Barrow is also preparing to launch a class on how to build computers. Using a virtual computer building software, students can learn the parts of a computer and how to put them together. 

“In the past, you would have to use a real computer,” Barrow said. “So if you messed up on something, if you burned out a motherboard or a processor, you’d have to throw it away and get another one. You’re talking about hundreds of dollars. With a virtual computer builder, if you mess it up, you hit reset, you try it again. You can do it as many times as you want and don’t burn out any parts.”

This will help returning citizens build skills in a trade – and it might help Barrow’s business too.

“I would love to be able to hire them,” Barrow said, joking that he’s being selfish by offering this class. “Because the other problem is, a lot of [returning citizens] have issues finding a job, even if they have skills. We have no problem hiring people with a past.”

Barrow said it’s been difficult to find people who want to work, so this kills two birds with one stone. Returning citizens often need a job to satisfy their parole requirements, and he needs employees. 

He’s been working with the probation and parole office in South Boston to get customers, but Barrow said he’d like to see customers from Danville as well. 

“Transportation is one of the issues,” he said. “The closest bus stop is at McDonald’s three and a half miles away.”

If he receives grant money, Barrow said some of that could go toward solving the transportation problem.

But he also wants to offer training at a more central location in Danville, perhaps opening another shop or getting a program started at the Danville Community College campus, he said. This way, transportation wouldn’t be as big a hindrance. 

Barrow has also been in touch with Sheriff Mike Mondul and city Councilman Bryant Hood about his program. 

Mondul said the sheriff’s office is working to refocus its reentry efforts into a more robust program, adding to the classes on life skills, substance abuse and parenting already in place. 

This new program is still in its beginning stages. Lt. Jennifer Wyatt is leading the effort, which will be officially kicked off in September. 

In the meantime, Mondul said it’s good to have people like Barrow in the local community working toward the same goal. 

“There are a lot of spokes in the wheel,” Mondul said. “There’s a lot of people who want to help, and that’s great.”

The sheriff’s office doesn’t keep data on recidivism rates, but Virginia has one of the lowest rates in the country. 

Virginia has a 23.9% recidivism rate, according to an April 2021 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections. This is the second lowest out of the states that report a three-year reincarceration rate, behind South Carolina at 21.9%. 

Still, Mondul and Wyatt said the local recidivism rates are probably higher than the state level. 

“I’ve only seen a couple of inmates come through the door that I’ve never seen before,” Wyatt said. “And I’ve only seen someone who never did any jail time before, whether with us or someone else, a couple times.”

Mondul, who used to work for the Danville Police Department, said it’s common for him to see someone come in that he already arrested. And when he walks through the city jail, he also sees the kids and grandkids of people he’s arrested, he said. 

The Department of Corrections report directly links recidivism rates to reentry programming. 

“Virginia’s low rate is attributable to the effective reentry and educational programming and treatment offered by the Virginia Department of Corrections during an inmate’s incarceration and its effective supervision in the community after release,” it said. 

Wyatt said that one part of the new reentry program could be keeping track of local recidivism rates, and then seeing how they change with the program in place. 

In addition to lowering recidivism, Barrow said he thinks his program could have a community-wide impact. 

“The more people that stay out of jail and start to help build this community, the better it’s going to be,” Barrow said. 

Hood said and Barrow have been discussing a potential partnership between the HammerHill Computers training program and the Stay Hood Foundation, Hood’s nonprofit. 

Part of the Stay Hood Foundation’s programming is mentorship for returning citizens. 

“I could be sending people [Barrow’s] way to train them,” Hood said. “And this could really have a major impact by allowing them into the workforce with those skill sets. I think it would help boost morale and confidence too.”

Hood said Barrow has a “hard passion to help” people, especially in this field. But Barrow’s penchant for community service extends beyond training returning citizens. 

He donates school supplies to the public school system, offers computer basics classes for the elderly, mentors children, even published his own book with step-by-step instructions on how to start and run a successful business. 

Barrow also started a nonprofit, the Global Education Advisory Council, to promote education from an early age. GEAC provides early childhood learning materials and computer basics information. 

Barrow said he eventually plans to move his training program for returning citizens under GEAC’s umbrella from the HammerHill brand.  

He was inspired to work with returning citizens, and before that, juvenile offenders, because his father was a juvenile correctional officer, Barrow said. 

“I saw the way that he interacted with the kids that were in jail,” he said. “We would be at Walmart, and kids would run up to him and hug him. I thought it was strange, but it was because he respected them. He never called them an inmate. He always said they’re his clients.”

Back in Fort Lauderdale, Barrow was the president for the board of trustees for AMI Kids, an organization that supports kids with a troubled past in creating a bright future. 

And when he moved to Danville, he wanted to continue that work in a different way. When asked what brought him to the city, Barrow said he really didn’t know. He and his girlfriend had plans to move to North Carolina, but they ended up here, he said. 

“I like to tell people this is just where God wanted me to be,” Barrow said. “If you had told me two years ago about Danville, I would think you were mispronouncing Denver. I’d never heard of this place.”

A town like Danville is where you would put someone in the Witness Protection Program, Barrow said, because they’d never be found. 

But he fell in love with the area, and being a newcomer gave him a unique perspective, he said. 

“I hear people say all the time, Danville doesn’t have this, it doesn’t have that,” Barrow said. “I look at it a different way. It’s an opportunity to bring that to Danville. If it already had everything that everyone else has, there’d be no potential.”

Barrow said he wants to help the city realize this potential with the programs he runs and funds. 

“I’m not saying that I’m rich, because I’m not rich,” Barrow said. “Would I like to drive a better car? Yes, I would. But that car gets me where I need to go, so instead of spending money on a car that’s not going to get me any further than this one, it’s better for me to just help people.”

HammerHill could sell the computers in the training room, he said, but using them for the program is a better option. And staying busy with community service on top of running a business is worth it, Barrow said. 

“When I relax on my one day off, I can say, okay, I feel good,” he said. 

Grace Mamon

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org.