Incarcerated Coding

October 17, 2015

Situated on the end of the San Francisco Bay, San Quentin State Prison contains a maximum security prison complete with a gas chamber and lethal injection room. Over four thousand inmates are currently incarcerated on San Quentin grounds, including more than seven hundred men awaiting execution on death row. Rapists, murderers, and gang kingpins have all called it home since the prison opened in 1852. Last January, it also became the home of novice coders.

 

The Last Mile, a non-profit based in San Francisco focusing on reducing the recidivism rate of current prisoners (how likely an inmate is to commit criminal activities once released from incarceration), seeks to rehabilitate criminals through learning and technology. Their motto, “Changing Lives through Tech”, stands as testament to their mission statement: preparing incarcerated individuals for successful reentry through business and technology training. What started as a six month program based on entrepreneurial drive has blossomed into a computer coding curriculum taught in partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and CalPia, a program that pays inmates an industry-comparable wage (a far-cry from what other prisons pay for menial work).

 

Code.7370, the coding curriculum established at San Quentin, meets eight hours a day, six days a week, for six months. Considered a “boot camp” for novices who exhibit an interest in computer science, over two hundred people applied with only twenty-three people accepted. There is a sizeable waiting list for the program’s next cohort application process. The application process consisted of a written application, as well as an in-person interview and technical assessment. Educators cover technical computer languages like JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and Python. At the end of the six month period, the inmates involved in the program receive a certificate of graduation.

 

Due to the security risks posed by giving criminals access to the internet, the educational learning is taught without outside help. All equipment brought in by the program must be thoroughly inspected by prison officials, with the computers especially paid attention to in order to ensure no possibility of them being hooked up to external networks. Prisoners learn computer coding through physical textbooks and the help of the instructors onsite. Many prisoners read technological magazines like Wired, Inc., and Entrepreneur in order to accelerate their learning process.

 

The program itself is rigorous, however it provides inmates a constant schedule that prepares them for a working life outside of the penitentiary. This program also includes a segment focused on behavior in a professional setting including a how to on shaking hands, eye contact, and social skills that are essential to landing a job in the tech industry. But beyond that, it provides the incarcerated an outlet towards something productive rather than indulging themselves in self-destructive habits. It decreases the likelihood that these people will end up back in prison once they are released to the general public.

 

The average recidivism rate in the state of California is more than 60%. Of the 40% that do not end up back in prison, 75% of recently released prisoners are unemployed after of year. Code.7370 aims to drastically reduce these percentages and produce working-age males with a set of skills that make them invaluable to the growing job market in software and technology. By 2020, it has been estimated that the demand for software engineers and other workers in the tech field will outstrip the supply of qualified applicants by over one million. Companies are increasingly outsourcing their code work to third-world countries. With the potential to train formerly incarcerated prisoners with the necessary skills needed, American companies can hire American workers. This works to help the economy in two ways: the retention of wealth in the US and the drastic reduction of prison costs associated with housing more prisoners that could not keep themselves off the streets. The average cost to house an inmate runs about 60 thousand a year. Compare that with the 10 thousand a year benefit a formerly incarcerated person contributes to the economy if employed.

 

Beyond the economic effects of this program, Code.7370 gives inmates and opportunity to express themselves in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. The idea that a prisoner would be given access to a computer and the ability to create something on it was unheard of. This provides an out for many prisoners. Az Ford, a graduate of the program, states that “Through all the pain I’ve caused others before coming to prison and the loss of freedom I’ve endured, the greatest thing I’ve learned in prison is HOPE”. Another recent graduate was quoted saying, “With every website I design and build, with every mobile app I sketch out and code, with every impossible JavaScript riddle I find a solution for, I feel more and more prepared for life after prison”. Not only is coding a quantifiable skill that will be used in the workforce, it is an art form. The problem solving and critical thinking needed to tackle writing or debugging a script unlocks a part of the brain that allows for creativity and exploration. Prison has historically sought to quell the thirst for creativity. Perhaps embracing and instilling the passion for learning and exploring can solve the problems of incarceration.

 

 

 

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