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Hard time software: Why these prisoners learn computer coding

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A novel code-writing program at San Quentin prison in California seeks to prepare inmates for life on the 'outside' and reduce the nation's repeat offender rate. 

 

 

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    Chris Schuhmacher, who is serving time at San Quentin prison, is learning how to write computer code as part of a program to help inmates when they get out.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Wearing a blue prison uniform, Chris Schuhmacher sits in a gutted factory building surrounded by the concrete and steel walls of California’s oldest penitentiary, San Quentin. Mr. Schuhmacher stares intently at the computer screen in front of him, then types a line of multicolored code. The windowless room is quiet except for the clacking of keyboards and the occasional squeaking of swivel chairs. 

This is Schuhmacher’s day job at the prison – not stamping out license plates or making furniture, but devising complex computer calculations for one of the fastest-growing start-up companies in the United States. It’s a slice of Silicon Valley behind the razor wire of the institution with the largest number of death row inmates in the country. 

It’s good work for Schuhmacher, who has spent the past 16 years in prison for killing a fellow drug dealer in Los Angeles. It pays well, $16.77 an hour, compared with the usual prison wages of less than $1. And he likes it – back in his cell at night he roughs out answers to coding problems with pen and paper. But most important is what the work will offer Schuhmacher once he gets out: a sense of purpose and the possibility of starting a new life. 

Inmates at San Quentin learn how to write computer code as part of The Last Mile program. Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“I know my crime was super violent, but I’ve used my time in prison to my advantage,” says Schuhmacher, a tall, thin man with searing blue eyes and close-cropped hair graying around the temples. He graduated from college while behind bars in 2011 with a 3.9 GPA and was chosen as valedictorian. Then he took computer coding classes. Now awaiting a parole board hearing later this year, he is using his wages to pay court-ordered compensation to his victim’s family. “It feels great to have a chance to pay the restitution,” he says. 

Schuhmacher is one of the first employees of a new and unprecedented technology joint venture that began operations in September inside San Quentin. His coding work is destined – via a project manager who acts as a bridge to outside clients – for companies such as Airbnb, a booming San Francisco-based start-up that runs a global website for room and house rentals. The joint venture, The Last Mile Works, is giving these inmates job skills that are in high demand across the US, particularly in nearby San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The venture is a small but cutting-edge experiment in a much broader, nationwide movement aimed at reducing the number of Americans behind bars by lowering the repeat offender rate among freed inmates. 

The US has the world’s highest rate of incarceration, with 2.3 million adults – about 700 per 100,000 of the population – in federal and state prisons or local jails. That population has grown from 500,000 in 1980, largely as a result of harsh sentencing laws and the war on drugs. Moreover, US prisons have revolving iron doors: About two-thirds of former prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release, and roughly half are reincarcerated over the same time period, studies show. 

Chris Redlitz, cofounder of The Last Mile, which helps inmates find jobs. Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Yet Schuhmacher and his co-workers at San Quentin are demonstrating that another path is possible – one that leads through education, training, treatment, and introspection to a productive and law-abiding life. 

Tapping away at a screen nearby is Harry Hemphill, a college-
educated engineer from Cleveland who landed in San Quentin for assault. Mr. Hemphill, who, like the other inmates, isn’t allowed access to the internet inside the prison, is also excited to work for the joint venture. “We are full-stack developers now,” he says, rattling off the computer languages he’s learned. “We can do [both] everything you can see on the screen and all the brains behind it.” When released about three years from now, “I will be marketable,” says Hemphill. “The greatest challenge will be getting society to see past me and what I’ve done to who I am today.”

The venture is helping build a community of current and former inmates who share not only a unique opportunity but the determination to establish a better future for themselves, and those who follow, outside prison walls – a hope they say is already spreading in San Quentin’s yard.

That enthusiasm is embodied in David Monroe, a soft-spoken man with a steady gaze and ready smile, who helped start the computer coding program at San Quentin. After a childhood in Stockton, Calif., surrounded by poverty, abuse, drugs, and death, Mr. Monroe joined a gang at age 12. “Violence was very natural for me,” he says. He was only 15 when he killed a rival gang member – who threatened and disrespected him, he then believed. “I was caught red-handed on the way to drop the gun off,” says Monroe. He was tried as an adult by a judge who called him a “cold-blooded murderer” and gave him a sentence of 15 years to life. He has been haunted ever since by the scream of his mother, sitting behind him in the courtroom.

Nearly 20 years later, Monroe feels nothing but shame and regret for taking an innocent life, emotions that have propelled him to spend nearly a decade mentoring at-risk youth who are brought in and exposed to prison life to discourage them from making bad choices. At San Quentin, he earned a college degree and became a certified sheet metal worker. Expecting to be released in December, he will go on parole and live in transitional housing that provides meals and health care. He also has a job waiting at the San Francisco firm RocketSpace, which runs a technology campus for start-ups. 

“After 19 years of prison, I’m prepared for anything,” he says. “I’m not at all nervous. I have no fears. I’m just ready.”

The explosion of the U.S. prison population has spurred a national conversation on the problem of large-scale incarceration, as advocates on both ends of the political spectrum seek solutions to America’s prison crisis.

Conservatives alarmed by the cost of prisons – estimated to total $80 billion a year – and the fiscal pressure on federal, state, and local budgets, want to reduce the prison population to cut taxpayer burdens. 

With the expense of imprisoning one inmate running from $30,000 to $40,000 a year, or more than $80 a day, “a lot of states are realizing they can’t afford to incarcerate people,” says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan institute at the New York University School of Law. In contrast, supervising someone in the community, including with mandatory training or treatment, costs about $3.42 a day, Ms. Eisen says.

Liberals argue that the high rate of incarceration reflects harsh sentencing, disproportionately affects minorities, is inhumane, and causes major “collateral” social and economic damage, such as unpaid child support.

“Our incarceration rates are off the charts compared to any other nations’,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit. “We have a far more punitive approach to public safety than any other country.”

Governments, meanwhile, have imposed “a host of barriers with little connection to public safety that make it more difficult for people [with felony convictions] to reintegrate,” by restricting public housing options, access to welfare and food stamps, as well as the right to vote, he says. 

A growing body of research has exposed flaws in a heavily punitive approach. “Study after study has shown that punishment can backfire, and recidivism can increase when people spend lengthy time behind bars,” says Eisen. “Providing treatment, programming, and job training is much more effective in many cases.”

Inmates exercise in the yard at San Quentin prison, long one of the nation’s most notorious prisons, which has now become known for its many rehabilitation programs, from Shakespeare classes to an inmate-run TV channel. Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Public support for change is gaining momentum. A poll in September showed that nearly 70 percent of US voters – including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans – agree that the main goal of the justice system is rehabilitating prisoners and making them less likely to commit another crime upon release. The poll by the Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan organization for justice reform, also found strong bipartisan support for replacing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders with case-by-case sentencing.

For their part, inmates say they struggle to turn their lives around while navigating the violence and gang activity common behind prison walls. “You have to let go of your humanity to survive prison,” says Aly Tamboura, a divorced father of three, reflecting on his more than 12 years at San Quentin a few days before his recent release. 

Wearing black-rimmed glasses and the hint of a goatee, the well-spoken inmate sounds more like a middle-aged academic than a man serving time for threatening his wife with a gun after accusing her of having an affair. Indeed, Mr. Tamboura, formerly an engineer who ran his own geotechnical business, has been a model prisoner. He writes for San Quentin’s prisoner-run newspaper, won an entrepreneurship award for a company he designed, and didn’t have a single day added to his sentence for bad behavior. 

“That was incredibly difficult,” he says, explaining how it’s impossible to just walk away from adversaries. “Most conflict in prison is solved by violence.”

Having grown accustomed to being unable to cry or show weakness, Tamboura says he fears he won’t be able to express feelings of warmth and intimacy upon returning to his family. He recalls having to hide his grief when he learned an aunt who helped raised him had died. “I had nowhere to go. I laid on my bunk and turned toward the wall and stayed there all day,” he says.

Soon after arriving at San Quentin, Tamboura was walking in the prison yard when a man staggered toward him, a hand over his bleeding stomach. Tamboura, trained as a first responder, moved instinctively to help the man, but another inmate stopped him. “Get away! If the guards think you stabbed him, you could be shot!” he warned. 

“That was a turning point for me,” Tamboura says. “They put you in prison to become better, but prison life demands you give up some humanity.” 

Aly Tamboura, who was recently released after more than 12 years in San Quentin. Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Chris Redlitz walks through San Quentin’s arched brick entry into what resembles the gatehouse of a medieval castle. The slim, white-haired entrepreneur passes a building labeled in gothic calligraphy as the “Adjustment Center,” where the most hardened criminals are housed. He pauses at the original stone dungeon of the prison, completed in 1854.

San Quentin has a notorious history, and it still houses the most people on death row in the US, more than 740 men. But in recent years the prison has earned a reputation among authorities and inmates alike as one of the nation’s more progressive correctional facilities. Thousands of volunteers like Mr. Redlitz from San Francisco and Marin County work with some 3,800 inmates in dozens of programs, from Shakespeare and yoga classes; to an award-winning, privately funded prison university; to an in-house TV and radio channel. 

Dressed entirely in black as required to set him apart from inmates, Redlitz stops a short distance from the prison yard, a dirt and gravel expanse with a baseball diamond and tennis courts, pull-up bars, and punching bags. The yard is surrounded by walls topped with concertina wire and towers where armed guards keep a watchful eye.

“A marathon is 105 laps around the track,” Redlitz says. “The best time is about 3 hours, 20 minutes.”

Groups of inmates are playing sports and milling around talking. What at first glance appears to be a scene of spontaneous recreation is in fact one of clearly defined turf, with the men self-segregated by race and ethnicity. 

“The group in front is the Mexicans, and the ones by the fence are white,” Redlitz observes. “The blacks are in the basketball court and the Asians around the tennis court.”

Six years ago, Redlitz, manager of Transmedia Capital, a Silicon Valley technology venture fund, first visited San Quentin to give a talk about entrepreneurship. What he encountered surprised him.

“I didn’t think it would have any resonance, but these guys had done their homework. The conversation was far deeper than I expected,” he recalls. Soon he was the one doing homework – on the causes of overflowing prisons in the US and the fiscal burden they’ve created. “A light went off for me,” he says. “I thought, I have some tools. I know a lot of people running companies. I can fix this.”

Week after week, Redlitz and his business partner and wife, Beverly Parenti, returned to San Quentin to build a rapport with inmates. “It took us a year just to get to the point where they trusted us,” Redlitz says. “I’m an old white guy from Silicon Valley who is now dealing with young black guys who grew up in gangs.”

The early meetings with a handful of inmates took place in a tiny room they called the “mop closet.” State corrections authorities were initially skeptical of his plans. Redlitz created a curriculum, recruited teachers, and slowly won backing from the state government.

By 2012, Redlitz and Ms. Parenti founded The Last Mile, a nonprofit devoted to breaking the cycle of mass incarceration in America by providing inmates with career training and help finding jobs after their release. 

There are plenty of people who need such help. Even though the US prison population has been declining modestly since its peak in 2009, some 600,000 inmates are still released in the US each year. Experts say it’s vital to address the shortage of prison education, job training, and mental health programs to increase their chances of successful reintegration.

Inmates who take education courses are 43 percent less likely than those who don’t to return to prison within three years, according to a 2014 study by the RAND Corp. They are also 13 percent more likely to get jobs. “Education in prison is a win-win,” says Fred Patrick, director of sentencing and corrections for the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. “For every dollar invested in education in prison, there is a $4 to $5 savings from the reduced recidivism rate.”

Job training has also been shown to reduce the number of repeat offenders. In California, for example, inmates who work in joint ventures have a recidivism rate of 9 percent, compared with 45 percent for the general population, according to Chuck Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA).

For this reason, even many critics of recent moves in California to reform harsh sentencing laws support programs like The Last Mile. 

“They are few and far between,” says Harriet Salarno, chairman of the board and cofounder of Crime Victims United of California, an Auburn, Calif., victims’ rights group. “We are not against these programs; it’s just not enough.” 

The Last Mile, which so far has trained 80 inmates in entrepreneurship and computer coding skills, sets stringent standards both to prevent inmates from reoffending – inside or outside prison – and to produce high-caliber employees. Inmates can only apply to the program if they have not violated any prison rules for two years. They must have a GED diploma, take a written test and a logic test, and have a one-on-one interview. Only about 10 percent of those who apply are accepted. They each sign an oath pledging good behavior.

If they show up late for class or commit an offense, they are thrown out of the program. So far, no participant has reoffended. On the contrary, inmates have embraced the computer coding classes, and in some cases bonded over the challenge.

“Coding is a lot about collaboration,” Redlitz says. “We have Crips and Bloods working together, blacks and Mexicans, Cambodians and Vietnamese.”

Participants learn workplace skills. “In prison you don’t shake hands, so we taught them how to shake hands and look people in the eye,” he says. Graduates of the coding program are now candidates for paid jobs in The Last Mile Works, the new joint venture set up in September with CALPIA.

In coming years, the 22,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to house five classrooms and 96 joint venture employees. With the US facing a projected 1 million unfilled web development jobs by 2020, the San Quentin “tech incubator” will offer US companies an alternative to outsourcing projects to foreign countries. The goal is for joint venture profits to enable The Last Mile to become self-sustaining. 

The program is currently expanding into five other California prisons, and has drawn interest from several other states, as well as Mexico and other countries.

Washington State is following suit. In June, a new Seattle-based organization called Unloop began partnering with local community colleges to offer computer coding classes in two state prisons. It wants to create a flow of former inmates into Seattle-area computer programming jobs, which pay as much as $120,000 a year. 

“Learning how to code is not rocket science,” says David Almeida, cofounder of Unloop, who worked on business strategy for Microsoft. “We believe anyone can learn the skill, and the demand creates a unique opportunity to get people in high-wage jobs without a bachelor’s degree.”

Unloop will help coding camp graduates get jobs by pairing them with professional mentors, who will advise them on how to interview and network as well as what to wear to tech “meetups.”

“Getting a job in the tech industry is not about sending out 100 résumés; it’s about who you know,” says Lindsey Wilson, cofounder of Unloop.

Alamin McAdoo (l.) and Darnell Hill, who participated in The Last Mile program when they were inmates at San Quentin prison, sit at their new workplace, a distributor of natural products, in San Bruno, Calif. Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

The day Darnell Hill left San Quentin two years ago, after 24 years behind bars, he felt as though he were “walking into another planet.” His eyes were open, but he could not see. All he could hear was a voice telling him: “You are home. You are home.”

Everything was new. He had to learn about cellphones, the internet, Twitter, and blogs. On a deeper level, he had to manage all the complex emotions he was finally free to express. But amid the vulnerability and uncertainty of the moment, Mr. Hill did not have to worry about major necessities such as food, housing, and finding a job.

With the help of The Last Mile’s business network, Hill quickly landed an interview at Grove Collaborative, a San Francisco-based distributor of natural products, from soy candles to sustainable skin care lotions. Within two months, his work ethic had earned him the keys to a million-dollar company, where he now manages the warehouse.

Then Hill did something unusual. He went back to San Quentin with a message to those inside: I have work for you when you get out. Early this year, Hill asked another former inmate, Alamin McAdoo, to try out for a job. Ninety days later, Mr. McAdoo had proved himself and was hired full time.

McAdoo lives in an eight-man apartment in a transitional facility with a nightly curfew. He reports to a harried parole officer once a month. But he takes pride in his warehouse job, where he packages products and conducts quality control. “It’s a pretty big responsibility for me,” says McAdoo.

“I can’t speak highly enough about the character and attitude of the people who come out of that program,” says Stuart Landesberg, chief executive officer of Grove Collaborative. “Darnell knows he is not just working for himself, but for the company ... and all the guys in the program today and years into the future.”

A similar dynamic exists in downtown San Francisco, where two other Last Mile graduates, Kenyatta Leal and Vinh Nguyen, now work closely together managing all the campus services for RocketSpace. A third graduate, Monroe, is expected to join their team upon his release from San Quentin at the end of the year. It is the first real job for Mr. Nguyen and Monroe, both convicted of murder as teenagers.

One of the vital intangibles of The Last Mile is its tight-knit community of current and former inmates. As they confront myriad risks and challenges adjusting to an unfamiliar world – the stigma of their past, the pull of old habits, and above all their own lack of confidence – they can rely on each other.

Indeed, for many, helping others avoid or overcome mistakes has become a passion. Mr. Leal, a tall, affable man, thought he would die in prison serving a life sentence until California voters approved a referendum in 2012 that eased the three strikes rule and brought him freedom almost overnight. 

He credits the hopeful mind-set he mustered inside San Quentin for buoying him today. His dream is to work full time for The Last Mile to expand its mission in California and globally.

“Every day I saw defeated men. Like zombies they walked to the yard, the chow hall, the cell block, and did nothing to try to free their mind,” he recalls. “If you free this first – that’s where it’s at,” he says, tapping his head with both hands.

“It’s about the glass being half full, not half empty. Yeah, I am in prison, but I am not in Pelican Bay, [a prison for the most serious offenders] where they really are stabbing each other every day,” he says. “I am in San Quentin and I can go to this program. Then I saw someone going home, and I thought, if they can do it – I can do it,” he says. 

“The only way out – is in.” 

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