Nov 14, 2023 - Education

This nonprofit is teaching Arizona prisoners how to code

Illustration of tick marks, ones and zeroes carved into a wall.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Eight Arizonans received their full-stack web developer certification last week during a modest ceremony at Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy, capped off with a cake baked in the prison's kitchen.

  • The graduates are incarcerated there — many for five years or longer. But with this training, they can qualify for junior web developer jobs and earn about $50,000 per year when they're released.

Why it matters: A 2018 Brookings Institute study found that only 55% of ex-prisoners reported any income during their first year post-release, and median earnings were $10,090.

  • Research has shown connecting formerly incarcerated people with stable, high-quality jobs reduces the likelihood they will reoffend and end up back in the criminal justice system.

What's happening: Tennessee-based nonprofit Persevere brought coding education courses to Arizona prisons in 2019. The Second Chance program is now in four Arizona facilities.

How it works: Students spend one year in classes learning front- and back-end programming.

  • During the program, teachers and Persevere staff also help participants with workplace readiness — like managing conflict — and addressing emotional and physical health.
  • Each person who graduates has a case manager who monitors their needs for the first year after release. Persevere helps with family reunification and transitional housing, and works to place participants in jobs.

Of note: Program manager Stephanie Morales told Axios Phoenix that because many software positions are remote and there is a strong need for people with the skill set, Persevere has found the tech industry to be more accepting of employees with criminal records.

By the numbers: About 300 people have completed the coding program in Arizona since 2019.

  • Roughly 50% are employed in the tech industry and another 30% are employed in other fields.
  • Just 2% have reoffended since their release — a far cry from the statewide prison recidivism rate of about 40%.

The intrigue: Participating is a sacrifice. Inmates in education programs like this make 14 cents per hour. Other jobs at correctional facilities can pay as much as 45 cents hourly.

  • Reality check: Inmates must pay for almost everything in prison — shampoo, toothpaste and phone calls.

What they're saying: "This is the only real opportunity here," newly minted developer Michael McGrain told Axios Phoenix after the graduation ceremony.

  • He's been incarcerated for 17 years and said he's tried just about every class and workshop offered at Red Rock, but this is the first one that's taught him skills he feels he can use in society.
  • He is set to be released in early December and has already prepped his resume and conducted mock interviews to ready himself for the job hunt.

Zoom in: Nathaniel Vasquez completed the coding course last year and served as the teaching assistant for this year's cohort. His brother works in web development and Vasquez plans to join him when he's released in eight months, he told us.

  • Vasquez said he was lost after his arrest more than five years ago. Persevere instilled confidence that there was another chapter waiting for him.
  • "You have the power to write your own code, both in software and in life," Vasquez told the graduates.

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