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A Second Chance - Helping Prisoners Learn New Skills

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Google's Marc Cohen gives his impression on visiting our pilot site at HMP Humber to run a master class in Google Developer Tools. 

I spend most of my professional time helping developers understand how to harness Google Cloud technology to build great applications. But a recent engagement brought me somewhere I’d never been before, somewhere, I suspect, no other Google Developer Advocate has gone.

My home country, the United States, has the largest prison population in the world, and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate. Poverty, unequal economic and educational opportunities, substance abuse, an inequitable justice system, and many other factors contribute to this state of affairs, and it seems clear that the current system is focussed more on penalty than on rehabiliation.

I recently attended the UK opening of this film about group therapy sessions held in a California prison:

https://youtu.be/h8OVXG2GhpQ

This movie inspired me to try to find out if there are organizations in the UK dedicated to helping inmates make the transition back into society.

A quick search revealed www.code4000.org, which has precisely that mission. I emailed code4000’s co-founder, Michael Taylor, to inquire about volunteer teaching opportunities. He responded enthusiastically, explaining that the program is currently operating on a trial basis at a medium security prison for men, HMP Humber, three hours north of London by train. We arranged a half day teaching session.

I was told the men had no direct access to the web so any programming exercises or demonstrations would have to work entirely offline. I was also advised that several participants were interested in web programming and was asked to prepare some material on Javascript and Chrome Devtools.

As the men filed into the room, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some seemed shy, avoiding my glance, others more outgoing, meeting me with a smile and a hearty handshake. I taught a group of 16 men with diverse backgrounds, ages, and interests.

I wanted to tailor the agenda to their needs so I summarized the material I’d brought with me, but also requested topics they were interested in discussing.

Together we came up with the following list of topics:

  • How does the web work? What happens when I enter google.com in my browser’s search bar?
  • Chrome Devtools Tour
  • What is “the Cloud” and why should I care?
  • Android vs. iOS vs. the Web, which one should I focus on?
  • Which languages/platforms/environments should I invest in?
  • What’s AI and Machine Learning all about?
  • Learning how to learn - what’s the best way to quickly learn new technical skills?
  • SEO - how do I make my web site appear in Google’s search index?
  • Security
  • Other languages of interest: SQL, Ruby on Rails

I also wanted to learn more about them and why they were taking this class, so we went around the room quickly introducing ourselves and mentioning what sort of skills we are interested in learning.

We proceeded to spend about an hour and a half in hands-on technical material on JavaScript and Chrome Devtools. The second half of the program focussed on our discussion topics. This portion was less lecture based and more of a free-flowing, spontenous conversation.

Both portions were fun for me, but I think I enjoyed the unstructured time the most. I found these men to be attentive, highly engaged, and curious. We covered a lot of ground, had some good laughs, and learned a lot from each other.

If you live in the UK and enjoy teaching technical skills to motivated students, I’d highly recommend checking out www.code4000.org. US folks should take a look at the Post-Prison Education Program which helps support inmates and former prisoners learn life skills needed to make their way back into society.

Thanks to Michael Taylor (co-founder of code4000), Neal Barnaby (my host at Humber) and the fine men I met at HMP Humber for an enriching day. Their passion to learn is inspiring and I look forward to returning soon.

 

Code 4000 is exactly the kind of pioneering partnership that we need to encourage. It brings together prisons, businesses and teachers to address the country's demand for digital skills and local regeneration, and giving prisoners relevant employment and a new future.

PAMELA DOW
Chief Reform Officer, Catch 22

To give ex-offenders the confidence and skills they will need to get a job - and critically keep it - we need to engage prisoners in work experience and training in custody which accurately reflects the employment market in the communities they will return to. For the first time Code 4000 gives those in our custody the opportunity to engage in a training programme to become the ‘coders’ of the future.

JASON SWETTENHAM
Head of Public Sector Prison Industries, HMPPS

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