Like everyone else in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jason Jones has an idea for a new app. Called "In Touch," the app would automatically upload information about a student's schoolwork, so that busy parents can make sure that their kids aren't flunking. Jones has a personal stake in this. He has three kids himself, and says his parents never cared whether he paid attention at school. "As a result, I was able to cheat my way through high school and college," he explains.
Jones is going through a coding bootcamp, so he will soon have the skills necessary to start working on his app. But the 31-year-old has never actually used a smartphone, and his Internet experience is limited to casual web browsing. He's an inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison—incarcerated since 2006 for assault—who is participating in Code 7370, a six-month intensive computer programming class developed by The Last Mile, a nonprofit program that offers entrepreneurship training for prisoners.
Once Jones and his fellow students graduate, they'll have the opportunity to take real projects from clients. That way, when they're released from prison, they'll already have portfolios. Theoretically, they should be able to get work that pays in the six figure range.
I recently visited San Quentin to see the Code 7370 initiative in action. Walking through the gates of the prison, my first thought was that the landscaping of San Quentin made it look more like a slightly down-on-its-luck college campus than a place housing death row. My visit to the Code 7370 classroom—a formerly decrepit space that was once used as a printing shop—reinforced that initial impression. The well-lit space is filled with refurbished computers that were previously used by state employees.
As the only one in the room with an Internet connection, Gripshover is the designated Keeper of Google—whenever inmates have a coding question that can't be answered offhand or through an on-site intranet, he looks it up. Prisoners aren't allowed to use the Internet, so the Code 7370 students do their work in a custom off-line coding environment.
On the day I visited, students were programming a Tic Tac Toe game. Marcus Phillips, the CTO and Head of Instruction at Hack Reactor, taught the inmates via a Google Hangout that was projected onto a screen in front of the class. Two volunteers from Hack Reactor, including cofounder Shawn Drost, were in the room to provide personalized instruction. The students were one month through the course, which is modeled after a Hack Reactor bootcamp (three months of that bootcamp in the outside world costs upwards of $17,000).
When students normally enter a Hack Reactor program, they have some coding experience. Not so at San Quentin, where at least six men in the coding class had never even used a computer before the program began. That meant that the Hack Reactor volunteers had to alter the pacing of the bootcamp, starting it out with lessons on how to operate a computer. But by the time I visited, the students were already going beyond my rudimentary coding abilities.
It would have been easy enough for all three Hack Reactor volunteers to show up in person, but Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, the creators of the Last Mile program, see this first class of 18 students as a pilot version of what could be done elsewhere, in more rural prisons where coding bootcamp instructors aren't so easy to come by. In those locations, all instruction could be done through Google Hangouts.
Code 7370 is a natural outgrowth of The Last Mile, which has been running for four years under Redlitz and Parenti's leadership. In the original program, inmates go through a six-month entrepreneurship program and emerge with a business plan, though they can only start a business once they leave prison. Some graduates, including Tulio Cardozo, who we profiled here, land promising jobs in the tech industry.
A handful of Last Mile graduates are also in the Code 7370 class. Damon Cooke, a well-spoken inmate who has been locked up 24 years for attempted murder, is one of them. A former financial advisor, Cooke is up for parole in six weeks. "I had an anger problem, but I've done a lot of anger management. I'm better now," he says.
His Last Mile startup idea, Active Alternatives, is for a better quality adult daycare experience—one where people could drop off their parents and keep an eye on them through video conferencing and live video feeds to make sure they aren't being mistreated by staff. He's hoping that his programming skills will help him start his business when he's released for prison. Damon says that he's already pitched his ideas to a large California adult daycare network, and they've been receptive.
"Everyone speaks about the [computer programmer] salary. It's not about that for me," he says. "I want to create my dreams and give back to help those who are less fortunate."
Jerome Boone, another Last Mile graduate, just wants a good job that he enjoys. Boone has been in prison since 2006 and has 3.5 years left on his sentence for possessing drugs for sale. Before incarceration, he was a certified nurse's assistant, but says that programming is the first position he's had where he can stay engaged all day. "I want to be a junior developer," says the father of three. "My oldest son thinks it's real cool. My kids are just happy that I'm happy."
Code 7370 is the first software engineering program in a prison, but it's certainly not the first attempt to teach inmates job skills. CALPIA, the state-run agency that helped start the program, trains 8,000 inmates throughout the state in manufacturing, agricultural, and service positions. A look at the CALPIA website reveals the varied products that inmates help produce, including flags, license plates, and gloves. They also provide services, including commercial laundry and e-waste recycling. According to the agency, CALPIA participants have a recidivism rate that's 26% to 38% lower than offenders from the general prison population.
CALPIA's products and services can only be bought by other state agencies, with one exception: the Joint Venture Program (JVP). Implemented in 1990, the CALPIA program allows private businesses to hire inmates, who are paid a "fair wage," as determined by the agency. Deductions are taken out for everything from victim compensation to room and board.
Prison labor programs often only go so far in helping prisoners gain work on the outside. "A lot of the skills that are provided by prison labor programs are ones that are unlikely to contribute to a job upon release in the United States," says Carl Takei, staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. "They in some cases would provide useful job skills if the inmates were going to work at a sweatshop in Bangladesh."
Once the first class of Code 7370 students graduate, the Last Mile will set up an in-house web development firm in the prison, where private companies will hire the inmates through the JVP at a cost of what they'd pay for the same services in the outside world (about $30 to $70 an hour). After deductions are taken out, the prisoners will have 20% of their paychecks placed into their personal accounts. Another 20% will be available upon parole.
The firm will be different from many prison labor programs, because it could provide inmates a real pathway to white-collar work. While they're in prison, though, the inmates are still being paid less than the going rate. And as Takei notes, prison commissaries charge more for goods than shops in the outside world, because profits are split between the commissary company and the prison itself. That means the wages inmates receive don't go as far as they would elsewhere.
"On the other hand, if this program does provide real useful job skills that would create job opportunities when they’re released back into the community, that is beneficial," he says.
Exactly who will hire the inmates to do software engineering work while they're still in prison, however, is unclear. When asked this question, Drost demurred. His only response: "Good question."
There are other hurdles, too. Some of the inmates in the program have been incarcerated so long that they have completely missed the technology advances that have defined recent decades. When Cooke was locked up, people still used dial-up modems to access Bulletin Board Systems. AOL did not yet exist. Nonetheless, program organizers said that they expect the students will be able to make the six-figure salaries that are commonplace among software engineers when they get out.
When Code 7370 graduates are released from prison, they will once again have to deal with the question of who will hire. Businesses are often wary of hiring former inmates, and in most states, it's legal to discriminate against people with a felony record.
But there are initiatives throughout the country that could help the graduates. In the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area, for example, Cascade Engineering is leading the 30-2-2 initiative, which is working with 30 local organizations that will each hire two people with criminal background and track them for two years.
Plus, the Code 7370 graduates have the benefit of possessing job skills that are ideal for remote work. According to Takei, former felons are not usually required to disclose their criminal history for freelance jobs if they aren't asked.
No matter whether they get jobs immediately upon release, the Code 7370 program is giving inmates something that they didn't necessarily have before: hope for the future. "I get these a-ha moments where a concept or certain element of what we're learning makes sense," says Aly Tamboura, who has 23 months of his 14-year prison sentence left to go. "When I get out, I'll have a marketable skill."
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Flickr user Koles;