San Quentin’s pioneering training program teaching prisoners to write computer code has attracted attention in Great Britain, as well as other countries abroad.
The new coding program in the UK was patterned after San Quentin’s Last Mile, a program which is now called Code.7370. The British program opened in the Her Majesty’s Humber Prison in the United Kingdom (UK).
“I read about The Last Mile a couple years ago and asked if I could do something similar over here in Europe”
“I read about The Last Mile a couple years ago,” Michael Taylor, Code4000 founder, told San Quentin News. “I reached out and ask if I could do something similar over here in Europe, and Chris Redlitz at the Last Mile was extremely helpful. We more or less mirrored The Last Mile project here in the UK.”
Taylor has a background in teaching coding under difficult circumstances. He taught refugee kids and troubled youth in a program called CoderDojo.
Taylor took his interest in teaching prisoners how to code to the Ministry of Justice in London. It was close to a year before the prison program was up and running.
The program currently has 16 prisoners, most of whom had zero knowledge of coding. The prisoners are trained in web development but without being connected to the internet. All the self-help videos and books for the curriculum are downloaded to an offline server in the classroom. The program facilitators have internet connection to do a Google search and to find answers.
“Normally you would just say log on to this course and do this course. We can’t do that, so we have to do everything offline,” Taylor said. “Our volunteers write stuff for us and they do little micro-courses that the guys can use… It’s all mentoring.”
Once participants are trained to work on external projects, they can move to the senior coder level. Upon release, Code4000 tries to get graduates apprenticeships with real companies or into full-time employment. So far only one person has graduated, who paroled and currently works as an apprentice coder.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“Coding is a great leveler,” Taylor said. “A lot of people in prison tend to have some kind of mental-health issue, or have the letter combinations like ADHD or OCD, or social problems. Coding can be that kind of thing that strips away those things and become a positive thing when you’re coding.”
“The one graduate was basically a painter and decorator before that,” Taylor added. “He didn’t really know English or math, but that didn’t stop him or other people in his position from learning coding.”
The stigma that formerly incarcerated people face in the United States is the same in the UK, but it’s different when it comes to coding jobs, Taylor said.
“Tech companies tend to be run by a younger generation with less hang-ups about this kind of thing,” Taylor said. “It’s a bit easier for us to talk to companies and talk about getting ex-offenders into employment in the tech sector than it would be in other sectors.”
Taylor is starting to understand the challenges working within the prison system.
“A lot of people are enthusiastic about this at the higher level but as it gets pushed down the chain, people get more cautious, and the culture of risk aversion kicks in,” he added. “Mostly people cover their backs by saying ‘no.’ You have to push against a culture that doesn’t like trying new things.
“I had to find some champions within the system who were willing to take the risk.”
Code4000 is expected to open at another prison and hopes to expand the program to 10 prisons within two years.
“Finding the money is always the problem. It’s like prisons are the most forgotten and least funded social engagement projects in the UK,” Taylor said. “They’re not sexy enough. Do you know what I mean? It’s like nobody’s really interested.”
Just as Taylor contacted The Last Mile to help establish coding programs for prisoners within his country, interested people in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Code Phoenix in France have been in touch with Taylor to do the same thing.
“It’s kind of an idea whose time has come,” Taylor said. “If you teach people in prison all these skills but you don’t teach them coding, you’re really missing out… it’s an obvious thing to do.”