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Prisoner Programmers

January 19, 2017

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By the end of this year, six California prisons will be celebrating the graduation of 200 programmers trained by the Hack Reactor coding boot camp.

The Hack Reactor graduated its first class of 15 inmates of California’s San Quentin State Prison in 2014; next year, the code school expects to produce 200 trained, qualified programmers from its classes of inmates at six California prisons, including Folsom State Prison and two women's facilities.

The idea to have the Hack Reactor train federal prisoners as programmers was the brainchild of venture capitalists Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, founders of the The Last Mile (TLM)—a non-profit collaboration between technology venture fund Transmedia Capital and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. TLM’s original charter was to teach prisoners "how businesses function, how to work with a team, accept criticism, gain confidence in their ability to grasp new ideas, and pivot when they are heading down the wrong path."

The current goal of TLM, which launched its first computer coding curriculum in a U.S. prison in 2014, is to convince prisoners they can make more money legitimately using their newly acquired programming skills than they can by returning to the life of crime that got them incarcerated in the first place.

The Hack Reactor curriculum starts by teaching inmates HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Python. Graduates of the Code.7370 program (named after the Internal Revenue Service designation for software companies) are paid about $17 an hour for their programming skills while still in prison—a fraction of what programmers make on the outside. Nevertheless, imprisoned programmers have already built dozens of commercially used programs, notably for Airbnb—the "airline bed-and-breakfast" vacation rentals company with many units near San Quentin Prison itself (which, after all, is in Marin County, within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge).

Once these trained programmers are released, their parole officers help them find programming jobs.

While inside, inmates are given no chance to go astray—Internet access is prohibited in prison. Ironically, the languages they learn are all oriented toward online applications, so the transition to legitimate employment for high programming wages is usually seamless, according to TLM.

Today, the rate of recidivism (released prisoners returning to a life of crime and getting caught and returned to prison) is about 68%, according to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Said TLM’s Redlitz and Parenti, "Imagine if we could break the cycle of incarceration and instead of spending tax dollars for prison, we could spend these tax dollars on higher education, and provide educational opportunities for youth in underserved communities. This would enable them to choose a different path than one of crime. With education and career training opportunities, we could break the generational cycle of incarceration."

Programmer training should make it easier for newly released inmates to land jobs that pay enough that their previous lives of crime will be of little appeal. Ironically, some of the highest-paying programming jobs are for hackers who work within government and the corporate community to prevent malware from being able to penetrate computer systems, which might be the most satisfying job an inmate could get—catching the bad guys, instead of being one.

Said Az Ford, a graduate of the Code.7370 program at San Quentin State Prison, "Through all of the pain I have caused others before coming to prison and the loss of freedom I've endured, the greatest thing I learned in prison is hope.”

R. Colin Johnson is a Kyoto Prize Fellow who ​​has worked as a technology journalist ​for two decades.


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