· edu

A Second Chance - Helping Prisoners Learn New Skills

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: The Work 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:

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 provides extensive outreach in prisons and intensive support post-release.

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.