Coding class shapes the future of inmates on the verge of release

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(TNS) – Bad choices took John Mannion away from a productive path, which ultimately led to him serving a minimum nine-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

“Society has its rules. I broke them, ”Mannion said Tuesday at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.

Now, at 36, Mannion is taking steps to acquire a skill that may one day allow him to provide for his family legally and reliably.

Over the past two months, Mannion has been part of a group of about 20 students at the institution learning the basics of front-end web design.

Their training is provided by The Last Mile, a nonprofit educational correctional organization that began in California in 2010, when co-founder Chris Redlitz, an “early investor” from Silicon Valley, accepted an offer to speak to San Quentin prison.

What should have been a 30-minute speech turned into a three-hour engagement and resulted in what he and his wife and co-founder Beverly Parenti describe as a “lifelong engagement,” a training module now. active in 17 penal institutions in five states, most recently Michigan.

Mannion, from Flint, quickly got into training, which began in late August. At the end of the first week, he was studying the material for the fourth week. In no time, he became familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and JQuery. With his wife April and daughter Brooklyn awaiting his possible release in 2021, he looks forward to turning training into career opportunities outside these prison walls.

“Computers, since I was little, have meant to me,” Mannion said. “When you tell a computer to do something, if it doesn’t, it’s not the computer’s fault. It’s us. The coding always calmed me down because it made sense. for me.”

A full-fledged Internet

Where professional coders can rely on Internet guides, inmates at Parnall do not have this access.

“We basically had to create a fully self-contained fake Internet” using cloud technology, Redlitz explained, for security reasons.

It is from this cloud that students can access the courses remotely, revise them if necessary, and then apply what they have learned.

Some participants, like Mannion, revolve around computers. Others, said Redlitz, “have never touched a computer.”

In August 2012, Mannion struck a plea deal in Oakland County for armed robbery and was sentenced to nine to 20 years in prison. Its first release date is in two years, in August 2021.

As that day approaches, Mannion said, he and his wife will determine which region of Michigan has the most employment opportunities for a new web designer. This is where the family will begin their new life.

What the program is looking for, more than experience or even intelligence, is “desire,” Redlitz said.

That, and a clean disciplinary record.

Participants cannot have been sanctioned in the 18 months prior to their application, and Redlitz said there is a “one-shot policy” for disciplinary incidents once inside the program. The hard line on discipline aims to put program participants and those who hope to one day participate on a better behavioral path.

Convicted murderers can participate. Cybercriminals, however, cannot, Redlitz said, for security reasons.

The Last Mile actually started in the California prison system as an entrepreneurial training program. During this speech in San Quentin, Redlitz explained his “three Ps” – presence, persistence, passion – and realized that most of the men in the room had all three. Some even had business plans ready, which they had written by hand with golf pencils.

Code for success

Redlitz rushed to his house and told Parenti – who feared his address had lasted so long, given his prison environment – that “you have to see what I saw”.

She picked it up on it and The Last Mile was created. But the teaching of entrepreneurship has had two problems, which are not easily repaired: it is not scalable because it is so “upscale”. And that didn’t give inmates the tough, employable return skills they would need outside of prison.

And the soft skills taught by the program, like making eye contact and a firm handshake, communicating effectively, or delivering a public speech, haven’t necessarily fattened the resume of a returning citizen trying to stay on course. path.

In 2014, the focus shifted to coding. With those early graduate classes, Redlitz said he would call CEOs of startups he knew and ask them to hire his interns as a favor.

Shortly thereafter, the phone calls came to him: “Do you have any new guys? “

These days, the program trains men, women and young people – about 250 in total across the five states. To date, it has hundreds of graduates. Some are six digits, Redlitz said.

Jason jones, 36, was ready to give a coding workshop to young inmates, but his first lesson would have nothing to do with programming computers to execute commands.

“You don’t look like any engineer,” said one of the youths of the half-black, half-Samoan man with a long criminal record and two tattoos on his neck.

Really in control

“How many people in their community make money based on their thinking? Jones said. “I saw that I had to change the perception.”

To do this, Jones had to draw on his recent experience to convince the skeptics.

When Jones first applied to The Last Mile Entrepreneurship Program, he was turned down. Redlitz didn’t like him and didn’t think he was a good guy or that he would be a positive influence. Jones admits this years later.

“The whole time I thought it was because I’m black,” Jones said. “In reality, it was my disciplinary record. I just wanted to be the toughest Crip in my area. That’s all I wanted.

But his “OGs” in his prison gang thought he had more to offer than that, Jones recalls. They redirected him to a productive path by encouraging him to continue his education.

A week later, on his 31st birthday in October 2014, he got a second chance when offered a spot in the coding program. At this point, he had been a gang member for 20 years after being initiated at the age of 11.

“The gang mentality is under control,” Jones said.

Drug trafficking in prison has helped him maintain the illusion of control. The coding helped him realize he wanted control to be more than an illusion.

He took the training so well that after his release from prison he became the Senior Remote Instructor for The Last Mile, teaching inmates and converting skeptics one classroom at a time, via Google Hangout.

Google.org has donated $ 32 million to criminal justice-related causes over the past three years, said employee Maab Ibrahim.

On Tuesday, he came dressed to succeed in a black power suit as he looked to encourage inmates in blue and orange jump suits to trust their training and take it seriously. He was setting where they were a year ago.

After returning from prison, his children, now 13, 15 and 18, told him that they Googled him and were proud of what they found. None of this mentioned the crime that landed him in jail – shooting a man he accused of assaulting his then 8-month-old daughter.

“Everything was positive. This was who I had become, ”Jones said. “All the good just pushed everything else down, out of sight. That’s how you control the narrative.”

© 2019 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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