In this three-part Tech Behind Bars series, we’re exploring the points of intersection between digital culture and America’s correctional system. See also: Inside the prison system’s illicit digital world; Can technology and prisons get along?
It’s a stunning, drop-everything-and-go-outside day at San Quentin State Prison, and the prison yard, with its billion-dollar view of Mount Tam and a pristine bay below, is full of inmates in state-issued blue and gray uniforms. Some are doing bicep curls with weighted-down laundry bags. Others are running laps around a makeshift track. Still others are playing tennis, taking batting practice, or hanging out shirtless at the recreation shack, enjoying the sunshine.
Nearby, in a dimly-lit industrial building that used to be a print shop, 18 inmates are hunched over wooden desks, pursuing a less conventional form of daytime recreation. They’re learning how to code.
Other parts of prison life may involve smuggled smartphones and illicit Vines, but Code 7370 is firmly above-board and warden-approved. During class, inmates use HP desktops with double-monitor configurations, and are tasked with assignments like taking badly formatted sites and hand-coding them back to their natural state. The program is the brainchild of The Last Mile’s founders, Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, a husband-and-wife pair with close ties to the tech industry. (Redlitz is a venture capitalist, Parenti is a business consultant and former start-up executive.)
Even though they’re building websites, the inmates of Code 7370 aren’t on the web itself. Prison rules don’t allow inmates to have Internet access, so class material is uploaded to their computers beforehand, and remote teachers are patched in to an administrator’s PC and projected to the class on a screen in front of the room. It’s a clunky set-up, but, hey, it’s prison.
“My exposure to the Internet is what I see on TV, basically.”
One of the students, Nelson Butler, 45, has been incarcerated for a gang-related murder since he was 19. The length of his sentence means that he’s never legally sent an e-mail, posted a Facebook status, or taken a Snapchat selfie. “My exposure to the Internet is what I see on TV, basically,” he says. “At first, I thought it was like the Matrix.”
In the next row over, Jason Jones, 31, is working on a CSS document. Unlike some of his middle-aged classmates, Jones is young enough to have experienced adult life in the Internet age – he recalls that when he was first incarcerated nine years ago, flip phones and MySpace profiles were “the hottest things.” Even though he’s been incarcerated since 2006, he says, his coding classes have allowed him to stay relatively current. “Now, when you see something on TV about computers, you think, ‘I know how they did that,’” Jones says.
Given their special status inside San Quentin — Code 7370 has a strict code of conduct for participants, and there’s a long list of applicants expected for next year’s class — it’s not surprising that the students in this class want to remain on the right side of the law. When I ask about the prevalence of contraband cell phones in their blocks, they demur. “Not everyone has a cell phone,” one tells me.
In a way, choosing to play by the rules has put the students of Code 7030 behind their peers. Sure, they’re learning useful coding skills, and playing around with <div> tags in their spare time probably beats the alternative. But they’re only experiencing the theoretical digital world. The real one — the one with Facebook profiles, Spotify playlists, and unfettered web access – remains beyond their grasp.
“The vocational training they give here is from 30 years ago,” Butler says. “Nobody out there uses CD players anymore. Nobody sends letters. We’re the only ones doing that.” Steve Lacerda, another student in Code 7370, tells me that he used to work as a tech support manager, and that being cut off from the digital world while in prison has been harder than expected. “I come across problems, and researching them is tough,” he says. “I miss the Internet.”
For former inmates, the transition out of prison and into the 21st century can be jarring. Many newly paroled inmates, especially those who served long sentences, have never sent an e-mail, used a smartphone, or filled out an online form. The unfamiliarity of these systems can create hurdles when it comes to mundane tasks, such as buying groceries from the self-checkout aisle at the store or using an electronic subway pass. And when it comes to applying for jobs, small hurdles can turn into huge obstacles.
The post-prison lives of inmates are rarely easy, technology problems or no. 77 percent of ex-convicts are arrested again within a 5 year period of being released, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice. But numerous studies have shown that vocational training and educational opportunities, like those offered by The Last Mile, can help keep ex-inmates from returning to prison. A 2010 study by The Rand Corporation showed that fewer than half of incarcerated people receive academic instruction while behind bars. Those who do receive educational or vocational training, though, are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, and 28 percent more likely to land a job.
One graduate of The Last Mile, Kenyatta Leal, got his first smartphone shortly after being released from San Quentin, where he served the last part of a 19-year sentence for firearms possession. Leal, 46, was no stranger to technology – years before, he’d been given 40 days of isolation in “the hole” as punishment for having a cell phone in prison – but he’d never had a phone capable of downloading apps, streaming music, and sending e-mail. In his new job at RocketSpace, a San Francisco tech co-working space whose founder hired Leal after meeting him in Code 7370, he realized he would need to catch up.
“I didn’t have any tech skills, but I had bust-my-ass skills,” says Leal. “My boss gave me a Galaxy III on my first day, and I took it home, figured out YouTube, and watched, like, four different videos on how to send an e-mail.”
“Teaching men and women about computers gives them an opportunity to learn 21st-century job skills. Not just shoe repair.”
Eventually, Leal found other sites he’d heard about in prison, like Wikipedia, and learned how to download music on Spotify, keep track of projects on Evernote, and post photos on Instagram. Now, six months after his release, his time in the tech world has clearly rubbed off. On a recent evening, he was wearing a gray hoodie and jeans, and peppering his speech with tech truisms like “fail fast” while discussing his most recent gadget, an Android smartphone called the OnePlus One. Leal says that if prisons taught basic technical skills to inmates, the re-entry process would be easier.
“Prisons have an obligation to rehabilitate,” he says. “It’s called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And teaching men and women about computers gives them an opportunity to learn 21st-century job skills. Not just shoe repair.”