San Francisco Nonprofit The Last Mile Teaches San Quentin Inmates How to Code

San Quentin is California’s oldest state penitentiary and home to those sentenced to life behind bars – and even death – for the most violent of crimes.

Everything in and around the prison was designed to keep prisoners disconnected from the outside room, from the razor-wire fences to the towers manned by guards at all times.

Everything except one room where 18 students gather four times a week to learn skills they hope will land them a six-figure salary once they walk out of prison walls: coding. In the room, a former print shop, there are four rows of desks and refurbished computers. The “boys in blue” sit and watch a face projected on the screen at the front. The man talking is their instructor, teaching them from a remote location via Google Hangout. The class is focused on learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

It’s part of a new program titled Code 7370 offered by San Francisco-based nonprofit The Last Mile, headed up by husband-wife duo Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti.

“We want the guys, and hopefully women in the near future, to be taught inside, to be part of this onshoring movement which is taking people who are maybe in underserved neighborhoods, who don’t have the classic education to become junior coders,” explained Redlitz.

At the front of the room stood Aly Tamboura, 48, who was identified as a star student. Tamboura is also a felon finishing his 14-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.

“I have 23 months remaining on that sentence,” Tamboura said. “I see this program as actually giving me the skills so when I get out I have a marketable skill to where I can go out from prison to the workforce.”

Chris Schumacher, 41, is serving a 16-year to life sentence for murder. Both he and Tamboura graduated from The Last Mile’s entrepreneurial training program during which they had to pitch start-ups to actual venture capitalists, businesspersons and investors at San Quentin during “Demo Day.”

He wanted to go a step further and take advantage of Code 7370.

“I was telling some friends that it felt a lot like a pitcher of water being poured into really small glass,” Schumacher described. “But with each day we learn a little bit more and it soaks in a little bit more.”

These are men who are learning how to write programming for apps, though they have never even touched a smartphone.

“I had a flip phone, a Nextel phone, but I don’t think it was very smart,” Tamboura joked.

The biggest hurdle here is what you cannot see among the technology in the prison classroom: there’s no internet connectivity. That’s where San Francisco-based program partner Hack Reactor plays a critical role.

“Every resource they have is either a book or documentation or files we have written or downloaded for them,” explained Wes Bailey, the program director for The Last Mile at Hack Reactor.

Hack Reactor teaches a rigorous three-month coding course that costs students more than $17,000 each. For the prisoners, the six-month elementary-level coding course is free.

“It’s the huge façade coming through the gates, the peeling paint, it’s like wow this is a place I don’t want to be and it’s a very intimidating environment,” Bailey said. “But I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised with how approachable and enthusiastic these guys are.”

These men acknowledge that the job force is gripped by stiff competition and that there’s unforgiving criticism to match: why should those who broke the law get a leg up?

Tamboura said it’s simple, they’re all returning to the community some day and want to maximize the result that they will never return.

“I can say that probably all of us want to do well in life. Nobody wants to come back here. Nobody wants to victimize anyone and this opportunity gives us a path so we can do that , so we can go out and be productive citizens.”

If that’s not sufficient for the naysayers, perhaps the following numbers will hit the mark. According to Chuck Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA), the decision to invest in these prisoners through steps like the coding program ultimately pay off for the taxpayers.

“In our Career Technical Education program, the cumulative recidivism rate is 7.1-percent,” Pattillo said. “So you think about 18 guys here, when they parole at that we’re talking 92.9-percent of these guys aren’t going to come back. That’s $60,000 a year. That’s over a million dollars annually in savings and I’m only investing 105 to 110-thousand dollars a year to run this program.”

Pattillo added he feels there’s a constitutional obligation to make sure people don’t go back to prison.

“So we will do whatever it takes to make sure they are prepared when they leave prison so they never come back again,” Pattillo said. “To do otherwise would be unconscionable.”

For inspiration, many of these men look to Kenyatta Leal, a graduate of The Last Mile who now works at tech start-up accelerator Rocketspace in San Francisco. We were there on his first day on the job in the summer of 2013.

“I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now because there’s some really, really good solid men who deserve a chance. That’s what motivates me.”

For Tamboura, the program has revolutionized the way he’s thinking about his remaining 23 months in prison.

“Now that I’m in this program I want the time to slow down because I want to absorb all of this. I want to be the best coder there is coming out of The Last Mile program.”

It’s inspirational even for those watching from the sidelines.

Phoun You, also a graduate of The Last Mile, said he opted not to pursue Code 7370 just yet but plans on doing it soon. Sentenced to 35 years to life for first-degree murder, You doesn’t have a shot at parole for another 15 years. Still, he said, watching his friends go through the course gives him hope.

“Even though I’ll be left behind, their success makes me feel good,” You said. “Gives me hope that maybe they can pave the way for guys left behind.”

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