Last Mile: Turning Prisoners into Programmers

As a career changer making the transition from criminal law to coding, I am fascinated by the potential for disruption within the criminal justice system and the power that tech has to be the catalyst for much needed change. My mutual interests in restorative justice and increasing accessibility to coding education led me to discover Last Mile, an unique initiative for prisoners at San Quentin State Prison, California, launched by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The program seeks to provide the participants with relevant skills in technology (the syllabus incorporates CSS, HTML, Javascript and Python) and other related areas, so that they may transition into productive employment upon release from prison (and subsequently break the problematic cycle of crime to which many ex-offenders fall victim). As Chris Redlitz, founder of the scheme and of The Last Mile writes on his website ‘…“returned graduates” will be positioned well to leverage this opportunity and support our mission to reduce recidivism by attaining gainful employment.

While it is difficult to ascertain the precise success rates of such an initiative, there is evidence to suggest that such an education, when combined with appropriate support, can improve employment prospects and the quality of life of an offender upon release. Certainly, testimonials on the Last Mile website would suggest that the inmates are receptive of the opportunity to improve their lives and develop a valuable skill-set that can utilised on their release.

 

If a case study  is required to illustrate the potential of Last Mile it arguably comes in the form of Kenyatta Leal. On September 25, 1995, Kenyatta Leal was a 26-year-old convicted felon who had just been told by a judge that he would be spending the rest of his life as a prisoner. In 2016, having been released in early 2013 and received an internship on release from Duncan Logan a mentor at Last Mile and founder and CEO of co-working space company RocketSpace, Leal now works as a manager at RocketSpace.

Towards a UK model?

Is this an initiative that could serve and benefit offenders and ex-offenders in the UK? This is a nuanced and highly complex question. There are, of course, many differences between both the UK and US prison systems and their intersecting socio-economic issues. However, with the continuing growth and obvious potential offered by the digital industry, it would appear to be a mutually beneficial situation of supply and demand. There is a benefit to the ex-offenders in that they learn a skill that will supply them with a career that will enable them to successfully transition back into and positively contribute to society. The tech industry and the surrounding economy will benefit from the supply of skilled employees at a time when demand continues to outstrip demand. Moreover, such an initiative may even go so far as to address the high rates of reoffending which continue to challenge the UK’s criminal justice system.

The reality of the current situation when presented numerically is somewhat stark. In the UK 46% of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of their release. This number rises to 60% for those serving sentences longer than 12 months. The London skill shortage is such that by 2020, it is predicted that, in London alone, there will be a shortage of 300,000 talent with the requisite digital skills.

“There’s a huge amount of talent…and it’s all just wasted”

Duncan Logan, the CEO who would eventually hire Kenyatta Leal to work at his company, RocketSpace, observed of his experience of meeting Last Mile participants“I was blown away very, very quickly by the individuals there…The dedication that they had in their businesses and pitches — it was one of those moving moments…There’s a huge amount of talent in [prison], and it’s all just wasted.”

A recent report by the Centre for Entrepreneurship, ‘From Inmates to Entrepreneurs‘, recognises both this untapped pool of talent and the potential it poses. The report recognises that the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders through traditional employment is undermined by the widely held employer-reluctance to hire individuals with criminal records.

Despite this reluctance, it is clear that ex-offenders are often possessing of a unique set of skills and thought processes that can make them a valuable asset to businesses. There are already numerous organisations that are recognising the entrepreneurial potential of ex-offenders and using this to integrate prisoners into gainful employment upon release. However, that these individuals lack any programming ability often means that this is not something that the digital sector can readily capitalise on. There is, however, the potential for change: As we now move towards what David Cameron referred to as a ‘truly twenty-first century prison system’, we could do worse than looking to the Last Mile initiative for inspiration.

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