Pamela Dow of Catch22 on the birth of the Code4000 project
In the chaotic and complicated world of public policy it’s very rare to be able to draw a causal line through space and time. With Code4000 we can do exactly this, linking two rooms 190 miles and 19 months apart, and show that good ideas can and do become real with a great team, a lot of tenacity, and a bit of luck.
On February 8th 2016 then Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech about prison reform. “So what?” you might ask, and you would be entitled to do so. Politicians make speeches all the time, words aren’t actions, and the problems facing prisons and probation are much greater than one person or one intervention can solve.
All this is true. But speeches can change the tone of a debate, they can inspire ideas, and they can give people permission to try things they might not have felt free to try before.
As Director of Strategy at the Ministry of Justice at the time I was in the audience in the small room in Whitehall listening to the Prime Minister speak. For the previous 6 months I had been working with Justice Secretary Michael Gove and his team on an ambitious vision for prison reform, to put a much higher priority on education and employment, to restore flexibility and freedom to Governors, and to encourage more partnerships with the private and charity sectors. For the 6 weeks before the speech we had been toing and froing with the No 10 team about what the Prime Minister might say, to signal a new way of thinking about rehabilitation and what was needed to reduce reoffending. It was exciting because it was the first time in 20 years that a Prime Minister had made a speech about prisons, and there was a lot of media coverage and interest as a result.
The day after that speech I got a phone call at my desk in the Department from someone based in Stockholm, Michael Taylor. He had seen the speech and was also excited because of the potential to import a brilliant idea from Silicon Valley, The Last Mile. This was a proven partnership between digital technology experts and San Quentin jail, teaching coding and business skills, setting up a tech incubator inside the walls, and coaching ex-offenders into fulfilling jobs on release. As I had worked in digital technology before joining the Ministry of Justice I was easily convinced by the potential of such a project, as I had seen for myself how quickly and effectively tech entrepreneurs made things happen.
Michael and I hosted an event at the Ministry of Justice to introduce The Last Mile project and bring together digital experts in the prison service, ambitious Governors, and tech entrepreneurs. Instead of focusing on the many barriers and risks (not inconsiderable – Daily Mail headlines about hacking were mentioned more than once!), we focused on setting up a pilot project.
A lot changed in the subsequent 19 months, from Secretaries of State to Prime Ministers, to the country’s relationship with the EU, but the vision for Code4000 did not change. The sheer positivity and belief in the value of the project by a small and highly collaborative team has been inspiring to watch and today, in a small room at HMP Humber on the north bank of Silicon Estuary, we are celebrating the success of a group of new coders. Digital technology skills are highly sought by employers, highly relevant to the new economy, and vital for regional growth and productivity. All national and local policymakers remain utterly committed to innovative projects like this, and partnerships between prisons and probation, businesses, entrepreneurs, colleges and mentors.
Our hope that in another 19 months’ time – or less! – there will be Code4000 projects across the country, both inside prison walls and through the gates.