The most recent group of San Quentin inmates to complete a computer programming class demonstrated their coding skills for more than 100 invited guests, including the head of prison industries, Charles Pattillo, during a Dec. 9 event held at the prison.
Thirteen inmates participated in the latest class of Code.7370, an innovative technology-training program. It is managed by the California Prison Industry Authority in collaboration with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and The Last Mile (TLM).
TLM is the brainchild of venture capitalists Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz and provides prisoners with the opportunity to develop original business ideas.
Since its inception in 2014, Code.7370 has been praised by prison officials and inmates alike as an invaluable training program. It is the only in-prison coding training program in the U.S. and is supported largely by volunteers.
“This program teaches people skills that keep them out of prison and (allows them to) be able to support their families,” said Warden Ron Davis. “What the volunteers do, you cannot put a price tag on.”
In attendance were local community members, including Scott McGrew, anchor of Press: Here, an NBC tech-business television show, tech-business executives and curious citizens. Inmates Jason Jones, Jerome Boone, Damon Cooke and Reginald Hola built Getting Parents’ Attention (GPA), an app that helps parents stay involved with their children’s education in order to help their children get into colleges with sports scholarships.
“GPA is not only my dream, but something I wish I’d had,” Jones said.
It took inmates Sam Hearnes, Lucious Jackson and Aly Tamboura six weeks to build Project Tycho, a project that incorporates an analysis of data from the University of Pennsylvania to highlight the importance of childhood vaccinations. Hearnes said he found that effective teamwork was just as important to the success of his project as learning to code.
The inmates faced a challenge in Code.7370 unique among coding training programs: They did not have access to the internet in prison. All of their work was done without that one tool considered integral to coding and web development work.
Inmate Harry Hemphill and his teammates had to use uncommon techniques to over-come the challenges of building without internet access. Hemphill said that since they could not Google answers, they had to struggle through problems and teach themselves specific skills. But by doing so, they got far more appreciation what hard work means.
Parenti said that each Demo Day brings her a great sense of accomplishment. “We are a small but mighty team,” Parenti said. “We see challenges as opportunities.
During the second cohort, we got a surprise visit from Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world who cares about what’s happening behind these walls.
We hope to continue the conversation.” Parenti added that TLM’s business partners are interested in giving internships to Code.7370 graduates. “We believe that having a job is the key to breaking the cycle of coming back to prison,” Parenti said.
“One is judged by the quality of their code, not the stigma of their past.”
In fact, the success of programs like Code.7370 and San Quentin News has inspired motivation to add similar innovative programming to other prisons across the state, according to Brant Choate, acting director of the Division of Rehabilative Programs at CDCR.
“Code.7370 is something new. We need to continue to look for new things,” Choate said. “Everybody is asking for a transfer to San Quentin and more programs like (the ones at) San Quentin. They shouldn’t have to do that. Those programs should be at those prisons, too.”
Choate says there are current plans to expand a tech center at San Quentin with several hundred additional computers.
The event allowed inmate Chris Schuhmacher to demonstrate Fitness Monkey, an online platform he built with Jorge Heredia and Joseph Demerson that encourages using fitness to combat addiction. Schuhmacher felt optimistic after the demonstration.
“Is it just me,” he said, “or can you feel the buzz of possibilities in this place?”
–Bonnie Chan contributed to this story