Sep 19, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Coding school pushes envelope on tech access inside prisons

Illustration of an open laptop with pages and a bookmark like a book

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Last Mile, which teaches coding skills to incarcerated people, is expanding a program that provides them with Chromebooks so they can continue their learning outside of specialized prison classrooms.

Why it matters: Incarcerated people often have limited access to technology and pay exorbitant rates for even basic communication tools, like phones.

  • The Last Mile says the laptops allow participants to spend more time learning and ensures their studies won't be disrupted by quarantines or lockdowns.

Catch up quick: The Last Mile, a nonprofit organization established more than a decade ago to teach entrepreneurial skills to those in correctional facilities, pivoted to web development classes in 2014 because it found those skills were most effective in helping people find jobs after their release.

  • Alumni of the program hold jobs across the tech industry at companies including Slack, Square, Zoom and Dropbox.
  • Until recently, classes were limited to desktop computers under the direct supervision of Last Mile staff, who hold the classes remotely over video chat.
  • Last year the organization piloted a program at Pelican Bay State Prison, in California, to allow students to continue work outside the classroom.

How it works: Each student is issued a Chromebook that can download videos, code samples and other materials during class time that can be taken back to the residential portions of the facility.

  • Participants never have direct access to the internet and have no connectivity at all outside the classroom.

The big picture: The Last Mile is one of a growing number of projects using technology as a means of reducing recidivism and improving economic outcomes for those who are incarcerated. Chris Redlitz, the San Francisco venture capitalist who founded The Last Mile, notes that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and recidivism rates hover at about 50 percent.

  • "We talk a lot about second chances," Redlitz told Axios at an event earlier this year. "Many of the folks inside never had a first chance, so how can you help prepare those who are coming back in society to have real hireable skills."

The latest: The Last Mile has now expanded the Chromebook effort to two other facilities: San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco, as well as a correctional institution in Indiana.

  • What began with a dozen students now has provided Chromebooks to several times that number. Another 50 to 100 Chromebooks are now on order or in hand to further expand the program.

What they're saying: The Last Mile executive director Sydney Heller said the program allows students to avoid interruptions in programming. Heller notes that the Chromebook program at Pelican Bay began on a Thursday, and the next day classes were canceled due to staff shortages — but the students could still access the curriculum on their laptops.

  • Heller said The Last Mile's programs allow students to develop an identity beyond their incarcerated status. "Now all of a sudden this same sentiment extends out into the facility beyond our classroom walls," he told Axios.

What's next: Redlitz said The Last Mile aims to broaden its work to cover a wider range of people by offering more than just coding skills. Too many incarcerated people are leaving prison without knowing how to use a smartphone or computer, he said.

  • "Basic skills are critically important," Redlitz said. "We've seen cases where people get out (and) they don't know how to use a computer and they can't even fill out a job application online and they end up coming back to prison."

Go deeper: A conversation on reducing recidivism through technology

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