Recently, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had a conversation with senior White House Adviser Valerie Jarrett to talk about the public’s benefit from a computer coding program at San Quentin State Prison.
“One of the reasons I came here is to learn directly from you the impact this program is having on your lives,” Jarrett said while standing in front of about two dozen inmates in the prison’s program, called Code.7370.
When a government sector, like California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), teams up with the private sector, a program for the incarcerated, such as Code.7370, is possible, according to Jarrett.
“That’s a win-win for the public,” Jarrett said.
Code.7370 is a collaboration between Hack Reactor, CDCR, and CALPIA, along with Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti — Silicon Valley venture capitalists, co-founders of an inmate entrepreneurship training program, The Last Mile (TLM).
Established in 2010, TLM invites successful technology and business professionals to work with inmates and “help bridge the gap between the penal system and the technology sector,” according to a CALPIA press release.
“It’s a win because the employer gets to see the people and the potential that the incarcerated have and their willingness to return to society and fill important roles in the workplace,” Jarrett said.
Correctional Industries Programs Code.7370, which is part of CALPIA’s Career Technical Education Program, belongs to a portfolio of 13 CALPIA specialized programs that have a cumulative recidivism rate of under 7.13%.
Jarrett said the White House is interested in exploring programs that use best practices and funding what works in rehabilitation. She suggested, however, that teaching high-skill trades, like computer coding, in high schools would be a better allocation of resources.
“If you just looked at it from an economic standpoint, this makes more sense than spending $80 billion a year on prisons and jails,” Jarrett said. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the prison population. People need to see the real impact that this is having on our lives.”
“President Obama has made criminal justice reform a top priority,” she added.
President Obama has issued more pardons than the last three presidents combined and reviews every one of them. And the public sentiment has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett told the coding students about a letter President Obama received from a federal judge who said how troubled he became after giving a man a life sentence because of mandatory minimum sentencing. The judge wrote that he was haunted every night by the decision. The judge went on to say that, after the pardons started, he kept looking for the man’s name on the list of pardons. It was only after he read that the man was pardoned that he was able to get a good night’s sleep.
“I think it’s because we’re able to tell these stories and make them human,” Jarrett said, referring to the reason for the pardons. She added, “The best objective is to change the way we sentence people to these unjust sentences.”
A coding student asked Jarrett about the White House’s position on whether employers should ask about felony convictions on job applications. She said President Obama strongly supports a federal law banning the practice, called Ban-the-Box.
“We asked employers to take a pledge to not ask,” Jarrett said. “More than 120 companies broadly across the country, from Coca-Cola to Uber, have taken the pledge. One major company de-stigmatized the practice by saying “we welcome returning citizens.”
Another student asked what advice she has for those who have served long sentences.
She said it’s crucial that people have an awareness of how the world has changed while they were in prison. “Going through the process by yourself is hard. I would encourage you to connect with the people who have been where you are. Don’t try to do it by yourself.”
Jarrett said President Obama wants to work on strategies that stop people from getting into the criminal justice system in the first place.
“In the courtroom, he’s focused on what we can do to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing. And in the cell blocks, what we can do to give people the tools they need to be successful when they are returned to the community and give them the motivation to learn these kinds of skills.”
“The more the private sector is able to see these kinds of programs, and understand that investing in the kind of things that meets their needs, the more they are willing to hire.”
Finally, a student asked Jarrett about President Obama’s future plans.
“It’s too soon to find out what he’ll do after he’s out of office,” Jarrett said. “However, he’s redefining what it means to be a lame-duck president. People make mistakes, especially young people, and they deserve a second chance. He’s going to speak out on issues that he cares a lot about. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s made a lot of mistakes when he was young, but he grew up in a very forgiving environment, Hawaii.”
More information about CalPIA can be found at www.calpia.ca.gov.