From Crime to Coding: Prison Tech Programs Bring New Opportunities

There is a major need for the United States technology sector to grow. And what that means is that there is a need for new coders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in computer and information technology jobs is going to grow exponentially in the near future. From 2019 to 2019, available jobs within the tech industry should scale up by 11%. This is much faster than is average for most other occupations.

What’s particularly enticing for many people is that these types of jobs are widely available for a wide variety of individuals. They are not confined to men alone, nor do those working within technology-related fields need to have specific athletic qualities. What is required is knowledge regarding the IT field. This doesn’t always require a university degree, however. Practical knowledge and training are often accepted by many employers.

Furthermore, the opportunities these employers offer are not always limited to those who lack criminal records. This is why some prisons are investing in bold new initiatives that will allow prisoners to reenter society with new skills and, ideally, job opportunities within the tech industry. Offering prisoners enrollment in programs for learning to code and repair tech equipment could change their lives — not only benefiting them but society at large.

The reality is that many prisoners leave prison with the intention of getting jobs and being productive members of society. But the reality of working with a criminal record is even more challenging than it may initially seem. Many prisoners are unable to work within the industries they were already familiar with before entering prison. Furthermore, some acquired their incomes through illegal means. Their criminal records and lack of marketable skills may actually make them more likely to re-offend and re-enter prison. For example, if an individual was convicted of selling illegal drugs, that could very well have been their primary source of income prior to their conviction. And without the proper skill set to find a reliable source of income after their release, it’s no wonder that recidivism rates continue to be problematic.

It’s hard for an ex-prisoner to get a legal job after leaving prison. If a former prisoner lacks a marketable resume or skills, reoffending can be even more tempting. Being taught a marketable skill while in prison, through programs for learning to code and similar opportunities, can make a major difference for a prisoner. Not only will they be able to work, but they’ll also be able to make more money from the outset. Rather than working for minimum wage and facing the related financial difficulties, an ex-prisoner can offer professional IT services and ideally create a new career for themselves.

Traditionally, many prisons have offered prisoners opportunities to learn and work while in prison. Some prisoners obtain college degrees while incarcerated, while others actively work (albeit for significantly less money than they would outside of prison walls). Programs for learning to code and similar opportunities, however, are more relevant now than ever before. While these types of opportunities are not currently available at every prison, those who are taking advantage of structural changes could model a new future for other prisons. The reality is that the wide majority of incarcerated people will eventually reenter society. They, and those around them, are healthier and safer if they do not re-offend. Furthermore, prisons are able to avoid the overcrowding caused by the high recidivism rate seen among American ex-cons.


Fighting Unemployment Through Tech Opportunities

As previously mentioned, a major problem for those leaving prison is unemployment. In fact, American ex-inmates face unemployment rates five times higher than those of the general population.

This is why Amazon Web Services became involved with Justice Through Code, one of the programs for learning to code offered to prisoners. Columbia University’s Center for Justice and The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School are working in tandem with Justice Through Code to instill new skills in inmates and help change the perceptions surrounding them. While most ex-inmates face negative perceptions from both potential employers and society at large, being able to offer coding and computer repair skills may help them prove that they’re motivated and ready to be productive.

The reality is that there is a need for job seekers with real tech qualifications. Any staffing agency knows that filling positions in the tech sector is a priority for today’s employers. Although the tech industry is growing, many people are not qualified to fill those positions. While this creates desperation among employers, that desperation can actually be good for ex-inmates. They could be overlooked when applying for jobs in more competitive fields, but the tech sector’s growth — which exceeds the number of qualified professionals available — may work in their favor. Programs for learning to code offered by the experts at institutions like Columbia University could grant them even more of an edge over other applicants, despite the fact that they will possess criminal records.

Another important point is that many jobs within the tech industry are not customer-facing. Though some ex-inmates may be prohibited from working within certain industries or could possess records that would make employers eliminate them from contention, they may still be able to work within the tech industry. An ex-inmate could easily work remotely as a web designer, offering their services from the comfort of their home. For many inmates, this may also be less socially intimidating than transitioning directly from prison to a busy public workspace.


A Proven Approach With Forward Thinking

The stigma surrounding ex-prisoners in the U.S. is strong, which could be one reason why programs for learning to code are not commonly offered at American prisons. However, these programs have been offered by prisons in other countries with great success. Inmates in French prisons are offered the ability to take technology classes, while Finnish inmates are all given access to a training course known as The Elements of AI. India has also been experimenting with similar programs, and therefore women incarcerated in the Bhopal Central Jail are able to take computing classes. These are run through the Bhopal School of Social Sciences. However, it should be noted that not all prisoners are able to fully benefit from these classes. Low literacy rates in India can affect a prisoner’s ability to take these classes and it’s possible that these kinds of barriers will also be present for American inmates.

California has launched trials of these types of programs in its prisons as well. The state needs to cut down on its recidivism rate, which is currently at 55%. This is why a program known as The Last Mile has been giving inmates training classes in a variety of different tech fields since 2016, most famously in San Quentin State Prison. While other prisons have been able to try the program, it remains to be seen if it will be adopted widely across the state. Furthermore, California is just one of 50 states — most of which don’t create programs for learning to code that would benefit their inmates. This is in spite of the fact that participants in The Last Mile have yet to re-offend.

The question that some opponents to these programs may have is whether or not programs for learning to code will really help ex-inmates get the jobs that they need. They may argue that inmates would be more helped by learning practical skills. These skills can not only be applied in prisons but outside of them as well. However, many inmates enter prisons with these skills and do not need to learn them. Furthermore, these fields are often more widely staffed. Although inmates may have experience working in the machine shop in their prison for cents on the dollar, programs for learning to code will them to obtain truly gainful employment upon their release. It’s important for ex-inmates to not only earn a wage but to earn a living wage. What constitutes a living wage can vary from state to state (and indeed, region to region). But without one, many prisoners will be more likely to re-offend. They could alternately be tempted to take illegal opportunities in order to make more money than they would at a minimum wage job.


Preparing Inmates For The Future Outside Prison

When inmates enter prison, they may do so for years or even decades. Much can change during the time period over which a person is incarcerated. Even if an individual has a qualified resume for their chosen field when they enter prison, by the time they exit prison, they may have both a criminal record and a significant lag in their professional skills. Even if an individual has been able to take advantage of bail bonds before their trial, they could face years in prison. During that time, technology could change rapidly; programs for learning to code can help bridge the gap and ensure that they remain competitive in the workforce.

Most computer coding programs in prisons require participants to have an existing foundation of knowledge. This could include a high school diploma or GED depending on the program. Participants must also be able to focus on a potentially intense educational challenge. For this reason, inmates are often carefully screened before being approved for these programs. Particularly aggressive inmates may not be considered, as these classes require intense concentration and teachers won’t have time to allow for conflicts and distractions. The Last Miles program requires every applicant to have a GED and they must furthermore submit their behavioral records. A personal essay is also required, as well as a logic test and an interview. The criminal law that the participant broke is less important than their individual behavioral history after they entered prison.

This specific program is taught over the course of two sessions lasting six months each. There are usually 25 students participating and they’ll attend classes for four days per week, eight hours a day. Therefore, the program also gives inmates something productive and positive to focus on while incarcerated. Students will typically learn HTML, CSS, Python, and Javascript. They will also learn UX/UI design and other individual skills. The challenge that they’ll face is that this must all be done without internet access. Instead, teachers will instruct them through the use of a secure local area networker server that will host only the curriculum being covered. This may reassure opponents that worry about inmates using the internet while incarcerated.


On-the-Job Training While Incarcerated

The Last Mile doesn’t simply train its participants in a theoretical way. Inmates are also able to learn through real on the job training. Usually, jobs available for incarcerated inmates pay anywhere from 20 to 80 cents per hour. However, The Last Mile program participants are able to earn a market wage while working for clients. This is the type of opportunity that many inmates would assume required help from their criminal defense attorney.

This aids prisoners on multiple levels. Not only are they building a portfolio while gaining job experience and real skills, but they’re also creating actual savings. This means that after a prisoner moves to open a checking account upon their release, they have funds ready to deposit.

These types of opportunities are also being made available to those with criminal records after they leave prison. For example, Jonathan Moore, the founder of the startup Rowdy Orbit, is offering 34-week coding courses to people with criminal records. Students are able to learn while also receiving paid internships with outside clients. The classes are free for them, while the company makes money off of student placement in a manner similar to the way recruiters would act.

The ultimate goal for most ex-inmates, regardless of their criminal backgrounds, is to work and avoid reoffending. But this can be difficult if they lack meaningful skills. Many ex-inmates are unable to even legally own a handgun, let alone easily obtain high-paying jobs. But new programs allowing them to learn how to code could change American prison recidivism rates in a meaningful way.

46 thoughts on “From Crime to Coding: Prison Tech Programs Bring New Opportunities

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