Melissa Hutchison has big plans for when she gets out of prison. She’d like to be a chef. Or a writer. Or maybe open a diner. Coding is not on her shortlist. That’s because she’s had 12 and a half hours training, total, at a prison coding camp run by the non-profit Girl Develop it in December 2017. The teachers took an aggressive approach, covering web development basics such as CSS and HTML in the short time they had. “It went by so fast,” Hutchison says. “I wish they would come back.”
Silicon Valley-style coding bootcamps have been held in prisons since 2014, but until recently were exclusively male. The prison-to-tech pipeline benefits everyone; the median salary for a software developer is in America is $103,560 and there’s a statewide shortage of talent. Melissa’s unlikely to make a third of that as a chef. Here’s the problem. There’s been a 700 percent increase in incarcerated women since 1980, and their recidivism rate hovers around 68.1 percent— but there’s far less infrastructure catering to their education.
Girl Develop It director LeeAnn Kinney finds the statistics sobering—and motivating. Her strategy is simple: Give inmates valuable skills so they don’t re-offend. With engineering skills highly in demand, equipping women prisoners with tech know-how could significantly change their future.
“Jobs in tech offer many benefits to those reentering society,” says Kinney, says, citing the flexibility of working remotely and the benefits of non-traditional hours. “We don’t foresee everyone who graduates being a web developer, but these skills can benefit any career.” But establishing a permanent program takes time, hence the abbreviated pilot Melissa attended at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in Delaware.
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Logistically, Kinney had to deal with prison clearances, lesson planning, teacher schedules, and a six-hour drive home. Everything had to be reframed; Girl Develop It holds statewide intro to coding classes, but they’re designed for people with internet access. Her repurposed curriculum had additional challenges, including computers that ran on Internet Explorer 7 (released in 2006) and giant skill discrepancies between the students. Some hadn’t been online since MySpace, she told me. The class designed basic Wordpress websites; Hutchison built one for her restaurant dream. “I want to put a spin on my dishes,” she says. “Instead of regular grilled chicken and chips I would do a grilled blue cheese chicken with a waffle chip.”
Providing computer skills to inmates can be traced back to the mid 20th century. In 1968, Honeywell and IBM launched clerical and computer programming classes in Massachusetts prisons, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons followed suit in 1975. These opportunities have rarely been available to women, whose classes historically focused on the stereotypical "female arts" such as beauty, homemaking, and mending male inmates’ clothes.
Times may have changed, but sexism still rules in the prison-ed space. An April 2018 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found a huge disparity in both the number and type of courses offered to men and women inmates. Vocational certifications run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice give women two choices; office admin and culinary arts or hospitality management, whereas men can pick from 21 courses, including computer technology, data processing, and horticulture.
“This presents additional barriers to women being successful in technology,” says Lindsey Linder, report author and policy attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “It's shocking that women have access to fewer educational programs than men, it’s a prime example of how underserved and overlooked women are in the system.”
This is a big deal. A report from the US Department of Justice found that vocational training for inmates dropped their recidivism rate to 20 percent, getting a bachelor's degree lowered that to 5.6 percent. Incarcerated women tend to have a poor education; Linder discovered that 65 percent of women inmates had not finished high school, with 11 percent dropping out by age 14.
“People make the mistake of assuming any employment [for ex-cons] is sufficient, and that's not true,” Linder says. “If you work at a fast food job, that’s not enough for your kids to survive on. With coding, you can work from home and earn a liveable wage.”
Of course, coding know-how doesn't automatically make you a success, but it’s been life-changing for a number of former inmates. Take Chris Schumacher, who graduated in 2017 from San Quentin’s Last Mile coding program and now works for pop culture media company Fandom. According to Glassdoor, its software engineers earn an estimated $110,000. Another Last Mile success story is Aly Tamboura, who learned to code while serving 12 years for assault. In 2017 he was hired as a technical manager by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (yup, that Zuckerberg).
California-based nonprofit The Last Mile established its coding program in 2014. Its 12-month, 40-hours-a-week course equips inmates with the skills to work as a front-end developer, getting them up to speed in a world that’s progressed without them. Originally focused on male inmates, the ‘go-to name in prison coding programs’ has spread to three women's prisons and eight men’s.
“There’s a difference in motivation between the women and the men,” says Silicon Valley VC and Last Mile co-founder Chris Redlitz. “The women are more entrepreneurial.” So far, the recidivism rate for his program is zero—but that data only refers to men's prisons, as no women have graduated yet.
Overall, women inmates are seeing a difference, albeit slowly. In the UK, the non-profit Code 4000 plans to launch coding classes in a women’s prison in the next year (they already work with a men’s prison) and in Georgia, the nonprofit Code/Out starts coding classes this summer in women’s institutions. There might even be some change in Texas; at a recent summit, Senator John Whitmire announced he’ll be hiring a director to focus on education for women prisoners.
Back in Delaware, Hutchison’s going to get a surprise this September. Girl Develop It just closed a new round of funding, and Kinney and co. are coming back to offer Hutchison a refresher course. They’ll also be teaching two new cohorts, and their sessions will be longer and cover more ground.
Even so, Kinney knows she’s got a long way to go. She wants to expand the program to different states, hold prison office hours, and establish a pathway to tech for released inmates. “More often than not these resources are provided to men, not women,” she says. “We focus on women as we want to see change happen sooner rather than later.”