In the past year, we’ve seen a renewed focus in Silicon Valley on improving the diversity of the tech workforce. For the most part, this effort has been focused on women and minorities and, at many firms, on veterans. Now, we see some tech companies taking this a step further through a program to hire inmates as programmers.
The effort began through Code.7370, which was launched in late 2014 as a partnership between Hack Reactor, The Last Mile, and California Prison Industry Authority to train incarcerated individuals at San Quentin prison on the basics of computer programming. The overarching goal of the program is “is to equip inmates with cutting-edge job skills and ultimately reduce recidivism.”1 This month, Code.7370 graduated their first class of 16 inmates who spent four days a week for six months enrolled in the program.
On Wednesday, USA Today reported an expansion of this already novel program: graduates of Code.7370 are being considered for job opportunities that allow them to “work on projects for private businesses, all from inside the prison’s walls.”2 What’s particularly exciting about this is that “[i]nmates will be paid a wage comparable to entry-level programmers in the San Francisco Bay Area” though “[d]eductions will be taken from that pay for room and board at the prison, support for inmates’ families, compensation for victims and a mandatory savings account that inmates can tap after they are released.”3 Though it may not make a huge dent, this salary could help cut down on the state’s costs of running a prison. In 2013, the California Budget & Policy Center reported an anticipated cost for the state of about $60,000 per year on each inmate for 2013-2014.4 Though this salary and program will only be offered to a small group of inmates, anything that helps offset some of the costs and burden on taxpayers is a good thing.
The way I see it, in addition to reducing prison costs, this program solves three major problems we’re seeing in Silicon Valley, and perhaps the nation as a whole, right now. First, Code.7370 works towards reducing recidivism, or the “percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense.”5 This is an area that California Attorney General and T4A.org Convening Guest Kamala Harris is particularly passionate about. In our TechTable early last year, she pointed out that close to 70% of offenders end up back in jail. She emphasized that technology and innovation should be part of the solution, whether that’s helping government collect and analyze data or members of the tech community teaching seminars inside prisons. As indicated above, reducing recidivism is the chief focus of Code.7370 and training and educational programs seem to be one of the best ways to tackle this problem. A 2013 report released by RAND Corporation suggests that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not” and “[t]hose who participated in vocational training were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release from prison than who did not receive such training.”6 And while there are many programs across the state that share this goal, Code.7370 is unique in that “it’s the first to prepare inmates for the growing opportunities in the technology world.”7
This leads us to the second problem that this program addresses: the shortage of tech workers. We constantly hear tech companies talking about their inability to find enough quality workers to fill their open technical positions. In fact, Code.org reports that while computing jobs make up 60% of openings in math and science positions, computer science students only comprise 2% of students in these fields.8
And this problem is only growing. Code.org further reports that computer programming jobs are growing at two times the national average, resulting in an estimate of 1,000,000 more computing jobs than students to fill them by 2020.9
This is an important factor. Not only does this program prepare inmates for just any job after they are released, but it prepares them for one of the highest paying jobs out there. It also helps fill the gap in a field in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates, proving to be a win for both parties.
Also, as mentioned above, this program can help increase diversity in the tech industry. Obviously, not gender diversity as San Quentin is a men’s prison but definitely racial diversity as 60% of California’s prison population is non white or Latino.10 As the USA Today article pointed out, employing inmates as programmers is a first in the nation, meaning that Code.7370 could create a whole new diversity stat on it’s own.
All in all, Code.7370 has the potential for huge benefits, helping to address many problems we’re currently seeing in Silicon Valley and the state as a whole. The program teaches the inmates not only valuable programming skills, but valuable life skills as well. Allowing them to earn a reasonable salary, create a savings account, and pay room and board teaches great responsibility and money management. It prepares them for a stable career with high salaries and plentiful openings and for an industry that shows no signs of slowing down. This isn’t an empty promise either; according to the USA Today article, five private companies “have expressed interest in hiring inmates as programmers and are being vetted.”11 And if this program is successful at San Quentin, it will be rolled out to other California prisons and potentially prisons across the country. This is a great public-private partnership with a big opportunity to make change in our criminal justice system.
1 Hack Reactor. (2014). The Last Mile and Hack Reactor Launch Code.7370, Offering Full-time Computer Programing Training to the Incarcerated [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.hackreactor.com/releases/the-last-mile-and-hack-reactor-launch-code7370-offering-full-time-computer-programing-training-to-the-incarcerated
2 Guynn, J. (2014, Apr. 22). California prisoners to get jobs as programmers. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/04/21/code7370-san-quentin-programmers-prisoners/26101065/
4 Graves, S. (2013, Aug. 7). Fewer State Prisoners, Higher Cost Per Inmate. California Budget and Policy Center. Retrieved from http://calbudgetcenter.org/blog/fewer-state-prisoners-higher-cost-per-inmate/
5 Recidivism. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recidivism
6 RAND Corporation. (2013). Education and Vocational Training in Prisons Reduces Recidivism, Improves Job Outlook [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/news/press/2013/08/22.html
8 Code.org. (n.d.). What’s wrong with this picture? Retrieved on Apr. 23, 2015 from https://code.org/stats
10 Grattet, R. and Hayes, J. (2015, April). California’s Changing Prison Population. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=702
Featured image via https://thelastmile.org/programs/computer-programming/