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People in Prisons Are Learning to Code — and It Might Alter the Course of Their Lives

May 15, 2019
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People in Prisons Are Learning to Code — and It Might Alter the Course of Their Lives
The Last Mile provides coding classes for people in prison. The result: Reduced recidivism. Scott Olson/Getty Images
The Last Mile teaches people who are incarcerated how to code. And it is changing their lives.

In prisons throughout America, you might find traditional classes in math, English and science or training programs for welding, auto repair and cooking.

But at San Quentin State Prison, individuals are gaining unlikely skills — HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The people learn to code while repaying a debt to society.

The Last Mile is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that teaches people who are incarcerated how to develop websites, software and apps. The nonprofit launched a pilot in 2014 at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, and it has since expanded the program to 12 other correctional facilities.

One of the biggest obstacles a person faces post-incarceration is finding a job. Checking the criminal background box on a job application can lead to rejection. Twenty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed — five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general population, according to the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative. And without a way to earn the wages they need to survive, they’re more likely to commit a crime out of desperation, which lands them back in prison. That vicious cycle contributes to the country’s shocking recidivism rate of 76 percent.

The Last Mile aims to make finding a job after prison easier, and in turn, reduce recidivism. Coding and similar technology-focused careers can offer secure, well-paid employment.

Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti founded The Last Mile in 2010. The idea came when Redlitz, who has a background in venture capitalism, spoke to a group of men in prison.

“I noticed that many of the men had ‘the look’ that I see in the eyes of founders and entrepreneurs in which we invest, but it was at a deeper level,” Redlitz told Inc. “These men had a look that reflected their primal hunger to learn and deep desire to build a better life after they served their time.”

Since the San Quentin pilot, The Last Mile has expanded to four states and worked with more than 460 people. The program has two tracks, each six months long. The nonprofit aims to have programming in 50 prisons over the next five years.

At San Quentin, after students graduate from the program, they can join TLM Works, which is a software development shop inside the prison. At TLM, participants earn $17 an hour, which makes them the highest paid workers who are incarcerated in the state of California. (The average worker in prison gets just 86 cents an hour.) The graduates work with clients that range from small startups to bigger companies, like Dave’s Killer Bread and Airbnb.

And once they leave prison, they have the potential to make six figures in the tech industry.

This approach to employment seems to be working. Not a single one of the 460 graduates has returned to prison, and 60 of those are fully employed or in higher education.

For Chris Schuhmacher, The Last Mile proved life-changing.

After being in prison for nearly two decades, Schuhmacher wasn’t sure what was outside waiting for him.

“For the longest time while I was inside my biggest fear was, ‘What’s life going to be like for me after prison? Who was going to give me a chance?’ I was going to have this stigma of being an ex-felon,” he told CNBC.

But once he started The Last Mile program, software development was his clear pathway to success.

Now he’s had an internship at Fandom, an entertainment site, and he’s created his own app, Fitness Monkey, which helps people recovering from addiction track fitness and “clean” hours.

“Coming back into society, I can take everything I learned and share it and pay it forward,” he said. “And I feel like that’s my responsibility.”

Schuhmacher’s unusual background gave him a different perspective compared to the average college graduate. And Redlitz attributes the program’s success partly to the tech industry’s openness to a variety of backgrounds.

The tech industry has a dearth of coders. Tech Republic projects a shortage of one million computer programmers by 2020. Incarcerated people could help fill that gap. Additionally, the tech industry has a diversity problem: With people of color dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails, The Last Mile could help increase diversity in the tech world.

“The Last Mile gives them a pathway into a segment of the workforce that traditionally there aren’t many avenues into,” Kenyatta Leal, a founding member and graduate of The Last Mile program, told PC Magazine. “Tech can be a force for good, I believe that. We can leverage tech to help people turn their lives around.”

More: In These Prisons, Former Offenders Find Healing In Theatre Arts

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