December 1, 2014; NBC Bay Area

Eighteen inmates at San Quentin State Penitentiary are learning to code through a new program offered by a San Francisco–based nonprofit. The Last Mile, a nonprofit focused on curbing recidivism, started the program, Code 7370, in order to give graduates a marketable skill to use as a tool in reentering the community.

Board member Chris Redlitz says, “We want the guys, and hopefully women in the near future, to be taught inside, to be part of this onshoring movement which is taking people who are maybe in underserved neighborhoods, who don’t have the classic education to become junior coders.” Without access to Internet connectivity and, for many, no experience with smartphone technology, the program’s students aim to complete the six-month elementary-level coding course and enter the workforce upon release. 

The program stemmed from the cropping up of similar coding courses in major metropolitan areas across the United States. Such courses can cost as much as $17,000 and often do not require previous coding or technological experience. 

And while Code 7370 is free to participants, The Last Mile believes these programs will result in lower re-incarceration rates and, ultimately, savings to taxpayers. Should the coding program result in a lowered recidivism rate similar to other prisoner technology education programs, 92.9 percent of participants in Code 7370 will not return to prison, potentially saving around $60,000 per inmate in annual costs. 

For many inmates, incarceration has the potential to be a catalyst for change, whether through education or other forms of rehabilitation. Such changes in prisoners’ lives were recently highlighted in a project from photographer Amy Elkins that features the photos and profiles of inmates from across the country. The project, entitled “Not the Man I Once Was,” seeks to show that many inmates are not the same after incarceration. Of the project, Elkins wrote, “In some ways the work is meant to reflect that idea of rebirth, change, metamorphosis.” Such change is important, and it is the role of the correctional system to enable inmates to successfully re-enter society upon release. Education through programs like Code 7370 could be a valuable tool in this regard and to stop incarceration from becoming a cycle from which convicted individuals cannot escape. With this in mind, prison reform strategies have been gaining significant bipartisan backing as of late. 

In addition to contributing to lower recidivism rates, Code 7370 and other educational programs in penitentiaries add an aspect of humanity to the prison system and transform sentences from punishment of the incarcerated into methods of reformation into good citizens. Such rehabilitation was integral to U.S. prison policy up until the mid-1970s, when a “tough on crime” mindset gained speed. However, education and work programs have been found to create a smoother and more successful transition into the community, and are once again being turned to for implementation.—Michele Bittner