Coding Behind Bars: Fighting Crime and Recidivism With Web Development
Inmate Jason Jones explains to Demo Day's attendees his tech project, called Getting Parents Attention (GPA), which aims to support student athletes through education. (Marcos Martinez/KQED)
James Houston got out of prison three years ago after serving 18 years for second-degree murder. This month he returned to San Quentin State Prison -- as a guest.
Houston was back at the prison to try to convince Silicon Valley venture capitalists to invest in an after-school program he designed called Teen Tech Hub, which aims to teach technology skills to youths in Richmond.
Houston presented his project with still-incarcerated inmates during Demo Day, an event for inmates to present their tech projects to venture capitalists.
“Teen Tech Hub was born out of my incarceration,” said the 42-year-old during his presentation. “I came to San Quentin and I realized what it meant to be in a community, and I wanted to bring that back to my community.”
The event was part of the San Quentin Coding Program, Code 7370, an initiative launched last year by a nonprofit group called The Last Mile to teach computer programming to inmates. The program is effectively a technology startup incubator inside the prison.
The Last Mile was founded five years ago by San Francisco-based venture capitalist Chris Redlitz and his wife, Beverly Parenti, to help reduce mass incarceration and recidivism in prisons by developing job skills.
Recidivism: An Urgent Problem
Mass incarceration and recidivism are urgent problems in California. While recidivism in 2014 declined nearly 7 percent from 2013, it was still 54.3 percent, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report. And the state’s prison system is overflowing with 116,124 inmates, 33 percent over capacity as of Dec. 2.
At first, the group focused on the development of entrepreneurial skills, but the program took a different turn last year when the organization partnered with the San Francisco-based coding school Hack Reactor. The two organizations worked together to create a curriculum to teach basic Web programming and advanced coding languages.
Wes Bailey, director of operations for The Last Mile, said the move made sense because the group’s aim was to provide inmates with job opportunities after they leave prison. Not only is the technology sector a fast-growing industry, but Bailey believes that there will be a shortage of Web developers in the next five years that former inmates could fill.
“The No.1 reason that inmates typically return to prison is if they don’t have something that is gainful employment,” said Bailey, who also worked as an instructor on the first stage of the program. “Our program is designed to prep them for really good jobs, and these are well-paying jobs.”
To help ensure the program’s success, inmates have to go through a competitive selection process that includes an interview and an assessment of their behavior and expected release date. Inmates with some experience in technology who can demonstrate an ability to learn are invited into the program.
But the program has had its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles in the beginning was trying to figure out a way to teach coding without Internet access because prisoners do not have permission to go online. To solve this problem, the organization built an internal system to share the projects developed by the inmates.
Another issue was how to handle the transition to the real world after prisoners have finished their sentences. The nonprofit solved this by continuing to work with their former students after their release.
Houston was one of them. After being released in May 2013, he continued to develop his tech project until the organization decided to fund it this year. Now, he is seeking venture capital funding.
Houston said that he was grateful for the skills he developed because so much in California is technology driven.
“You’re an archaic man trying to survive in today’s society,” said Houston.
Another Benefit: Cost-Cutting
The Last Mile’s co-founder, Redlitz, said the program has another side benefit. By reducing recidivism, it also cuts down the prison system’s cost to taxpayers, which would allow the savings to be re-invested in education.
“The end result is if we can mitigate some of the problems that are a big fiscal issue for us and take some of that cost away, [it can be] re-dedicated to other areas, especially education,” Redlitz said.
He added that prison spending was “on par with higher education.” According to the state’s enacted budget, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a budget this year of $12.6 billion, while higher education has a budget of $14.6 billion.
“If you took a fraction of that budget and redirected it towards education, every young person in California could have a free college education,” Bailey said.
Also attending Demo Day was former inmate Heracio Harts, 42, who had been convicted of manslaughter. He went through the entrepreneurial program in 2012 and developed a project called the Healthy Hearts Institute. His project aims to encourage nutrition and physical fitness to combat childhood obesity in low-income neighborhood in Pittsburg.
Harts said The Last Mile’s program gave him the support he did not find outside prison.
“In my neighborhood ... (t)he entrepreneurs were the drug dealers," said Harts.
Current inmates see Houston and Harts as inspirational examples of re-entering society successfully. Four months after being released, Houston was hired as an outreach worker at the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety, which aims to reduce crime rates.
Meanwhile, Harts stayed focused on his project.
Aly Tamboura, a participant in the coding program, says he aspires to become a software developer when he is released next year.
“My goal is to get a job as a junior software developer, and I’ve got to tell you, this program has given me those skills,” said Tamboura, who is serving a 12-year sentence for assaulting his wife. The 49-year-old had initially been sentenced to 14 years in prison, but the term was recently reduced for good behavior.
At Demo Day, Tamboura presented his project, Tycho, an interactive Web database for parents with children who suffer from diseases such as polio, influenza, measles and chicken pox.
The Last Mile’s hope is that the success stories will change society’s negative perception of ex-convicts.
“There’s a lot of talent and desire inside that really needs to be nurtured, and that’s really what we are doing,” said Redlitz.
As a next step, the organization is launching its first women’s program next spring.