Nov 18 2014

Program Transforms California Inmates into Software Coders

The nonprofit that developed the six-month program says it could be a model for other states and a solution to address California's growing prison population.

Cities across the country are developing and funding programs that teach residents with little to no technology skills how to write computer code within weeks.

These coding boot camps are often located within innovation centers and tech incubators in flourishing downtown districts. But in California, coding classes are being held in an unlikely place: the state’s oldest prison.

At San Quentin State Prison, located about 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, 18 inmates learn JavaScript, CSS and HTML for eight hours a day, four times a week, reports Co.Exist, a media site focused on innovation.

Dubbed Code.7370, the program may be one solution to address California’s growing prison population and its high rate of recidivism. A new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that most states expect their prison populations to grow, some by double digits. Inmates in the San Quentin State Prison are taught the skills they need to work as entry-level web developers, USA Today reported Friday.

The inmates were chosen from a pool of 100 applicants to participate in a six-month computer programming boot camp, aimed at teaching them how to quickly comprehend, digest and find solutions to novel problems in web development. A nonprofit organization based in San Francisco to help bridge the gap between the penal system and the technology sector, the Last Mile launched Code.7370 at the prison in October through a partnership with the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) and the coding academy Hack Reactor.

“After the educational program concludes, Code.7370 will operate a development workshop and create employment opportunities for inmates to practice and profit from their new skills,” Hack Reactor said in its news release.

San Quentin’s inaugural class of budding programmers isn’t tech savvy. Many inmates were incarcerated while the Internet grew in popularity, and they’ve never done a Google search or logged on to Facebook, according to USA Today.

Is Code.7370 a Model for Other States?

The creators of Code.7370 think the program can be replicated elsewhere, including rural prisons that may not have easy access to coding instructors.

Inmates at San Quentin State Prison receive instruction in person and via Google Hangouts. Prisoners do not have Internet access and instead do their work in a custom off-line coding environment, according to Co.Exist. The website described the prison’s Code.7370 classroom as a well-lit space filled with refurbished computers previously used by state employees. Outside of the coding classes, inmates can practice their new skills under the supervision of a CALPIA employee.

There’s also a technology entrepreneurship class in which inmates develop ideas and business plans for their own start-ups. There’s also a Demo Day, when they can pitch their ideas to Silicon Valley investors and executives, USA Today reports.

Public opinion about Code.7370 is mixed (See comments on the USA Today article). Some see it as a great way to empower inmates so they can one day become productive members of society. Others question why the time and training isn’t invested elsewhere, whether inmates should be armed with these skill sets and whether companies will actually hire them.

Graduates of other Last Mile programs have been hired by several companies, including Doz, Mindjet and RocketSpace. The hope is that Code.7370 graduates will also find work once they are released from prison.

“The new Code.7370 program is unique not only because it’s being taught inside San Quentin State Prison, but it has an end-goal of preparing formerly incarcerated people for jobs in the tech sector after they are released from prison,” said Chris Redlitz, co-founder of the Last Mile.

Darren Patterson/thinkstock

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