From prison to programming: How coding can help inmates find a path out of crime

Jason Jones spent nearly 14 years incarcerated. After learning how to code in prison, he now uses his experience to educate others on how coding can improve social mobility and prevent re-offending.

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Jason Jones, remote instruction manager at The Last Mile.

Image: The Last Mile

As someone who spent the majority of his young adult life in prison, Jason Jones knows firsthand the difficulties of trying to re-enter society after incarceration.

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Jones was swept into gang activity at a young age following a difficult childhood, which culminated in him being sentenced to 13 and a half years in prison in 2005. It wasn’t until 2014, while spending time at California’s San Quentin Prison, that Jones was introduced to computer programming through a friend, who advised the then 30-year-old Jones that turning his efforts to coding might offer a practical means of staying out of trouble.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” Jones tells TechRepublic, adding that a disciplinary infraction upon arriving at San Quentin resulted in him spending his first 10 months confined to his cell for nearly 23 hours a day.

Fast forward to today, and Jones has long since left his turbulent younger years behind him. Now 36 years old, Jones helps deliver software engineering training to incarcerated individuals in prison facilities all over the US. 

The Last Mile is an education and entrepreneurial program that teaches coding, software design and other marketable skills in prison facilities across the US, in order to help create career pathways for individuals when they re-enter society. Founded by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti in 2010, the program has served over 650 students to date, and is today the most widely sought-after educational program within US prisons.

Like many young men from similar backgrounds, Jones didn’t have a lot of exposure to technology during his upbringing, and notes that his knowledge of computer coding was non-existent prior to being introduced to The Last Mile in 2014. 

“A lot of people in our program, even to this day, it’s their first time ever touching a computer,” says Jones. 

“Learning to use a mouse, learning how to navigate a computer was really foreign. The first day they told us, ‘turn on the computer, pair up with someone you don’t know and you have until the end of the week to build a website. I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy!'”

Jones admits that his initial plan upon enrolling onto the course was to pass the time playing solitaire, before quitting. However, he soon discovered a knack for coding that quickly developed into a passion. He went on to develop an analytics dashboard for Airbnb as part of The Last Mile’s vocation program, as well as co-create an internal search engine for San Quentin prison to help The Last Mile students more easily locate course resources.

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September 25th, 2020 marked the two-year anniversary of Jones’ release. Now working as a remote instruction manager for The Last Mile, Jones is proficient in Ruby, JavaScript, PHP, Python, React and Jekyll, and uses his unique experience to teach others about the power of coding in helping returning citizens find stable work, and prevent recidivism. 

“People who went to prison before social media and the internet was really something, they get out and they don’t know how to use a phone,” he says. 

“If you don’t know how to use a phone today, it’s really hard for you to survive in this society.”

Much of the problem lies in the fact that people in prison aren’t given the opportunity to prepare for re-entry until they get out, Jones says. Instead, he argues that this preparation should start on day one.

“On day one, you should start working on whatever you need to work on to grow, mature, mentally and emotionally heal, and, if you don’t have any kind of skillset, start developing one,” he says.

“Then when you get out, you’re in a position where you can use this skillset to make money, and don’t have to rely on committing any crimes, or feel like you’re in a position where you have to do something risky.”

The junior engineer vs senior engineer approach

Jones has also taken his experience and coding know-how to assess some of the issues facing America’s social and legal systems. Using the prison system as an example, he argues that applying engineering principles to the way laws are created can help fix a system that’s all too often reactive, and driven by emotions.

“When you look at some of these social issues, especially with the legal system, you look at how the laws and rules are designed and architectured. You ask: ‘Are they scalable, and are they efficient? Are they optimized?'” he says.

“Legislation always takes a junior engineer approach. If I give a junior engineer a problem, they will just jump in, take what they know and try to solve it. If I give a senior engineer the same problem, they’ll do research to understand everything about the problem before they jump in, then come with multiple solutions to think though.

“Once they land on something they feel comfortable with, then they’ll start coding.”

Jones makes reference to the US’s controversial three-strikes law, under which anybody convicted of a felony three times is handed a mandatory 25-to-life sentence on their third conviction. While some states have reported a drop in crime since it was passed in 1994, it has also created incidents where individuals have been handed a life sentence for something as innocuous as stealing a slice of pizza.

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This, argues Jones, is where taking a senior engineer approach would have benefit. “Years down the line, they’re trying to fix some of the edge cases that fell victim to this law, which was written with a lot of grey area,” he says.

“If you really look at it, if they had taken a more senior engineer approach, they would have looked at those outcomes early on and would have had alternatives of how to apply the law. That’s the bigger piece, where I feel an engineering background will help in recreating – or refactoring – these systems in thinking about alternative outcomes and measures.”

Jones believes that tech companies have a role to play in this. “The people who are creating these laws are creating them because they’re emotionally-driven, by something that triggered that emotion and needed to be solved right there and then,” he says.

“These people designing systems at tech companies… their experience and knowledge is not leveraged when thinking about architecting the social systems that are in place. Whether it’s the public school system, whether it’s the prison system, whether it’s the legal system or healthcare system – whatever system that’s in place in America that really needs refactoring and really needs to account for education, and be scalable, and be something that is efficient over time.”

Creating a tech pipeline

Tech companies are already lining up to engage in The Last Mile’s mission. According to cofounder Beverly Parenti, more than half of the returned citizens who graduate from the programme are now in full-time tech roles, with several having since been hired by the likes of Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, VMware, Pilot.com, Checkr, and Fandom.

This pipeline to the tech industry is not only essential to ensuring that people have a second chance to succeed, but also for pushing the diversity agenda forward, Jones argues.

“When you think of diversity, I think a lot of people just thought of diversity from a cosmetic standpoint: Black and brown people, or gender diversity,” he says. 

“They’re not thinking about people’s life experiences; they’re not thinking about the things people had to survive or live through, whatever it may be, and counting that as diversity. 

“Yeah, there should be more Black people in tech, but I think there should be more of everyone in tech, more of society in tech. Me bringing my experience is not just bringing the Black experience. It’s also bringing the experience of someone who was formally incarcerated, someone that was in in foster care, a former gang member: all these different things, these are all experiences which positions me as a resource when you think about how tech can solve some of these social issues.”

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