Hacking Out of Prison: San Quentin Inmates Learn to Code

Hacking Out of Prison: San Quentin Inmates Learn to Code

Charley Locke

“Javascript is like learning a foreign language on another planet,” exclaims student Larnel Wolfe. He and his classmates sit attentively at their desks as Marcus Phillips, co-founder of Hack Reactor and instructor of the day’s Code.7370 class, demonstrates how to build an interactive online version of Tic-Tac-Toe.

Although this tableau may seem familiar to many aspiring computer programmers, Wolfe’s experience stands out from others: in addition to being Hack Reactor coding camp students, Wolfe and his 17 classmates are inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

For eight hours a day, four days a week, the 18 students in Code.7370 come to class in California’s oldest prison (and the only one that conducts executions for male inmates). They learn coding through project-based sprints, like their peers at Hack Reactor in San Francisco, 20 miles south. The program, developed by nonprofit The Last Mile and the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), aims to provide inmates with job skills and prospects both within and outside of prison.

Can You Teach Computer Programming Without Internet Access?

The six-month Javascript, HTML and CSS course, now in its pilot year, offers a challenge to both instructors and students. None of the inmates had any prior coding experience, and many had to be taught how to turn on a computer and use a mouse. After a few months covering basic computer skills, Shawn Drost, co-founder and head instructor at Hack Reactor, is confident that his San Quentin students, selected after interviews testing aptitude rather than prior competency, will be able to learn the same programming skills as aspiring coders in San Francisco.

And Hack Reactor instructors had to design a coding course for students forbidden from accessing the Internet. “With Internet access, we would be moving ten times as fast,” says Drost. “They’re learning offroad right now.” As he explains, lack of access poses a significant challenge, since students can’t search the Internet for answers or make live web pages.

So Hack Reactor instructors have done what tech startups love to do: iterated and improvised. Through “Bookstrap,” a database on a localized hard drive, inmates can search and problem-solve while learning. “A core competency of coding is to be able to use reference materials and ask for help,” explains Phillips. Drost adds: “When coding, you can’t know everything you’ll need to do your work--you need to know how to approach the problem.”

A Genuine Second Chance

Like many coding camp students, these inmates hope that their new skills will help them find employment upon graduation--and release. “We all live in a tech world now, but in here, that just passes you by,” explains Wolfe, who has been in San Quentin for nine years, serving a sentence for second degree murder. “By understanding how technology and computers work, I won’t be left behind.”

“This gives individuals who were in prison a trade skill besides burglary or selling drugs,” says Gary Valentino Hollis, or “Green Eyes.” He is scheduled to leave San Quentin on May 18, 2015 after serving 19 years for attempted murder. After his release, Hollis, a Navy veteran, hopes to help others with successful reentry to society. “After prison, you need a network of three things: transportation, housing, and a job,” said Hollis. With programming skills, he hopes to ensure an income for himself and for others.

Drost is hopeful that he will. “These guys will be walking out of here with six figure salaries,” he predicts. And the startup culture’s oft-ridiculed glorification of alternative life paths may help former inmates get a fair second chance from the tech community. “Code.7370 hopes to get rid of a prejudice about former inmates, and give them the skills and connections to find employment,” explains Michelle Kane, Chief of External Affairs at CALPIA. In the world of startups, “credentials aren’t very meaningful,” Drost assures. “Everyone who graduates from Code.7370 is going to get a fair look.”

The Bay Area’s Latest Startup

The Last Mile, the nonprofit that developed Code.7370, was founded in 2010 by technology entrepreneurs and investors Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti. It began as a six-month tech entrepreneurship program at San Quentin, in which inmates learned business, presentation and social media skills while developing a startup plan including technology and a social cause. So far, seven of the nine graduates released from prison are employed by Bay Area companies.

Redlitz sees Code.7370 as a natural extension of the tech entrepreneurship program. As he explains, “It’s a full startup, with ideas and developers,” all from inside prison walls.

Indeed, Code.7370 plans to provide students with work while still incarcerated. Drost envisions a “web development firm,” where inmates could complete freelance work for different companies. (When asked about who might be a potential client, Drost confessed, “Good question.”) Through the Joint Venture Program with CALPIA, which trains approximately 8,000 California inmates with job skills annually, clients would pay inmates a wage comparable to an average web developer’s salaries in surrounding counties, which Drost estimates at $30-$70 per hour. As per CALPIA’s policy, inmates would receive 20% of their wages as a paycheck, while 20% would go into their savings, 20% would go to San Quentin as room and board and 40% would go towards restitution.

By providing individuals with employment while incarcerated, Code.7370 would enable what Redlitz describes as “on-shoring”: helping inmates develop job skills and connections while utilizing an often neglected segment of America’s domestic workforce.

A Unique Resume

Kenyatta Leal, who works as the Manager of Campus Services at RocketSpace, graduated from The Last Mile in 2011. At the time, he was serving a 25 to life sentence for possession of a firearm under California’s three strikes law. (Watch Leal’s TEDx talk here.) Leal sees The Last Mile--and Code.7370 in particular--as a way to provide opportunities for inmates to change their lives. “The Last Mile’s entrepreneurship [program] helps people understand what it takes to be successful in business,” he explains, “but Code.7370 provides somebody leaving an incarcerated setting with a 21st century skill.”

As Leal sees it, graduates of Code.7370 will come to work with a dedication and ingenuity familiar to any startup. He sees strong parallels between newly released individuals and startups. “Leaving prison and going back into the real world is all about rebuilding a personal brand, starting over from square one and learning from mistakes,” Leal explains. “Startup culture is the same thing: constantly iterating, failing fast and building from that. Both parties share that kind of resilience and fearless movement towards change.”

Jason Jones, a student in Code.7370 who has been incarcerated for eight years for assault, also believes that the dedication of his classmates will make them valuable employees. “It’s higher stakes,” he explains. “If I was learning at Hack Reactor and already knew some coding, I wouldn’t be as interested in the program.” As Leal puts it, “It’s one thing to want to start a company, and have problems like issues with funding. It’s another thing to be locked up. That’s your life.”

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