By Monique Tooson, Intern
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Offenders at San Quentin State Prison are getting the opportunity of a lifetime, even behind prison walls. A computer coding program called, Code.7370, is providing job skills to offenders and helping propel them into tech careers when they are released from prison.
Code.7370 is run by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) with the help of The Last Mile co-founders, Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti. The Last Mile is a non-profit program at San Quentin that prepares incarcerated individuals for successful reentry through business and technology training.
This month, 13 offenders took part in the second graduation of the Code.7370 program at San Quentin. The keynote speaker, musician MC Hammer, congratulated the men for staying on the positive path toward improving their lives.
They were cheered on by CDCR staff, including Warden Ron Davis, Acting Director of Division of Rehabilitative Programs Brant Choate, CALPIA’s General Manager Chuck Pattillo and Silicon Valley business community representatives.
“They’re learning a valuable job skill that can provide them a successful life on the outside,” Pattillo said. “We are proud of you, but we don’t want to see you back, we don’t want you to return to prison.”
Code.7370 has caught the eye of private Silicon Valley companies and piqued their interest in the Joint Venture Program. The program is a model of public-private partnerships benefiting businesses, while providing offenders with the essential job skills. As part of the Joint Venture Program, businesses gain access to a trained workforce and pay offenders industry comparable wages.
Learning to code is difficult in the real world, but at San Quentin State Prison, coding is even more of a challenge without Internet access. Despite these obstacles, the curriculum was developed to provide offenders the ability to create web applications that can be launched online.
Code.7370 participants work on projects offline at a computer lab at SQ four days a week. After six months, the students are able to code web applications using computer languages such as HTML, Java Script, and CSS.
Parenti expressed the importance in teaching marketable skills to offenders as a key factor in lowering recidivism.
“We see the opportunity to change lives,” said Parenti. She expressed that even though the participants were felons, they were no less capable of achieving success. “This is an industry by which one is judged by the quality of their code, not by the content of their past,” Parenti said.
None of the participants had any experience in coding and some had never even used the Internet before their incarceration. By the program’s end, offenders had designed web projects and apps which they demonstrated after the graduation ceremony during Demo Day.
Most offenders drew inspiration for the idea behind their application from the same difficulties that had led to their incarceration.
One project called “Fitness Monkey” was centered on preventing and recovering from drug addiction through fitness. The demonstration included details on how users will interface with the application and use it to assist in their recovery. It was developed by inmate Chris Schuhmacher who was inspired by his own addiction and recovery success.
Another application called “G.P.A.” aka “Getting Parents Attention” was inspired by an inmate who was once a promising athlete, but because of his poor grades in high school was not accepted into college which became the start of a series of bad choices.
His app aims to connect parents to the academic progress of their students and to steer them in positive directions.
One of the groups presented their creation for an online video game called “Teen Tech Hub” that’s focused on teaching coding to disadvantaged kids ages nine through 14 in urban areas.
The inmates drew on their inspiration from “The Legend of Zelda” and “Pitfall” to create a program where young people must solve coding problems in order to advance in the game. The site aims to help kids suffering from low self-esteem and is expected to be launched as a non-profit program in the next year by founder and former inmate James Houston.
Last Mile co-founder Redlitz shared the program’s possibilities and said they are planning an expansion throughout California and hoping to make Code.7370 available at several institutions next year.