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A second chance: Local program teaches female inmates how to code

Computer programming and specifically coding, continues to be hot job. Thousands of positions are open in Washington state.

The problem from employers is that there aren’t enough qualified applicants. But a program that teaches female inmates how to code, is hoping to fill that gap along with giving them a second chance in life.

For those in the program, this is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

“I’m here for a bad decision, assault with a deadly weapon. I didn’t even have a traffic ticket before I came to prison,” said inmate Jesse Lestat.

Lestat’s time in prison has left her missing her children and grandchildren. But she’s looking ahead to 18 months from now when she’s expected to be released. Because of the coding program, she hopes to become a freelance computer programmer.

“I was this person 3 ½ years ago. I’m not anymore,” she said. “I made great strides forward. I made a bad decision. That’s not the person I am, that’s not the person I am today.”

Teaching female inmates to code is a collaborative effort from Microsoft volunteers, the Washington state Department of Corrections, Tacoma Community College and a non-profit called Unloop.

“Everyone in here is pretty hungry to learn,” said Unloop’s cofounder David Almeida. “What we’re trying to do is build a supportive community of employers, educators and professionals to be mentors and supporters so that when people get out, they’re supported by a network that’s invested in their success.”

Almeida, a former Microsoft employee started the non-profit after seeing a similar program being done at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. Almeida hopes that the program benefits the inmates, employers and the public. He also recognizes there are challenges ahead for the inmates participating in the program.

“The reality is, somebody with a criminal record faces discrimination in the job market. People with criminal records are half as likely to get called back for an interview. And we don’t believe that type of discrimination will be that much different in the tech industry,” he said.

What the inmates are learning though is that they’re not alone. They receive support from volunteers who spend several hours helping them about coding. That support will be with them once they leave prison too.

“They’re going to follow them and help them makes those contacts with prospective employers,” said Sarah Sytsma, Director of Corrections Education for Tacoma Community College.

Currently the program is seven months into a one-year curriculum. About 20 inmates are part of this initial program. The recipients learn not only about coding but are introduced to robotics. Microsoft employee Josh Goldberg has volunteered more than 600 hours outside of his job to help with the program and others. Goldberg also created the lesson plan for the coding program.

“It’s pretty mind-blowing. It’s kind of like a whole new world here,” he said.

The inmates are also some of the most impressive and eager coding learners he’s seen.
“It’s incredibly rewarding. I mean seeing somebody discover programming for the first time, whether they’re a five year old or a ten year old or a 50 year old, it’s a beautiful thing to see,” said Goldberg.

To be considered for the program, inmates need to have a high school diploma or equivalent GED. They also need to have some type of computer knowledge and be within seven years of release.

Prison officials say the program is already having a positive impact within the gates. The goal is to make sure that continues upon release.

“As far as public safety, when people get released and get gainful employment and be busy, certainly there is less crime,” said Felice Davis, Associate Superintendent at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Alana Andres said the program gained her interest and reminded her of MySpace several years ago. She wishes this program was available to her earlier in her life.

“I want to be a front-end developer. And so, it would be like creating the pages and making the pages look nice. That’s what my plan is to do,” she said.

Andres said she has served 26 months in prison. But once she’s released, she hopes to attend the University of Washington. She also said this program has given her a confidence that will hopefully make her family and community proud.

“I’m not going to let it hold me back. I got a 51 month sentence, and I’m going to use every day of it in here to better myself and to do all the classes I can and continue my education. That’s something they can never take away.”

This is just one of 126 programs the Department of Corrections offers to inmates. Many said they hope to someday become business owners, work for a tech company or be freelance computer developers.

Once they complete the program, Tacoma Community College plans to hold a graduation ceremony on June 15th.