Computer coding class at Indiana prisons is a second chance
Calvin McCaster is from Chicago, but Gov. Eric Holcomb is hoping he’ll think of Indiana as home — once he’s released from the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility.
Once he’s served his time and completed a brand-new computer coding program Indiana offers to inmates — McCaster will be the kind of Hoosier that Holcomb said Indiana wants and needs. He’ll be trained in a high-wage, high-demand job and be ready to fill one of the thousands of jobs in need of a worker.
Earlier this year, the state estimated that Indiana had more than 80,000 unfilled jobs — largely because employers can’t find skilled workers. The challenge of workforce development — the process of getting more Hoosiers trained and into those jobs — has been great, and success or failure there may determine Holcomb’s legacy.
To get where the state needs to go, Holcomb said, that effort has to include Indiana’s 27,000 inmates and programs like the one that’s giving McCaster a second chance, a California-born computer coding program for inmates called The Last Mile.
Coding is likely to become a more important skill
Coding is just one of the many high-skill jobs the state wants to train workers for, but it’s also one of the highest-paying and, unlike some trade jobs, only likely to get more important as tech continues to rise.
Holcomb brought the program to the Indiana Women’s Prison last year and announced in December that it had expanded to Pendleton and the kids serving time there. Last month, it expanded to a third facility. There are currently only a handful of graduates statewide, but within a few more months, a total of five Indiana correctional facilities will be offering computer coding.
Standing in front of a dozen of Pendleton’s incarcerated youths, a few Google employees, philanthropists and various state leaders in December, Holcomb told the kids that they had an incredible opportunity in front of them, that everyone in the room was proud of them and rooting for them to succeed.
“The state of Indiana is counting on you,” he said.
Four months later, some of those kids are getting ready to leave Pendleton and they’re excited about a future different from anything they’d dreamed up before getting incarcerated.
Brian Ward, a 17-year-old kid from Indianapolis, wanted to play basketball. If that didn’t work out, his backup plan was trucking.
McCaster had hoped to pursue music. He still plans to write songs on the side, but now his main focus is computer coding. He’ll be released from Pendleton in a few months, after serving nearly two years there. As a 19-year-old, he’s already a convicted felon. His prospects after getting released were almost guaranteed to be slim — many employers screen out convicted felons — but with a new, in-demand skill set, McCaster is optimistic.
“If music didn’t work out, I’d probably just stay in the streets,” he said.
Now, though, he has different plans. He spends nearly all day in Pendleton’s computer lab working through The Last Mile’s coding curriculum, and he’s almost done. When he’s released, he plans to continue his education at the 1150 Academy — an Indiana coding school that’s partnering with The Last Mile and the Department of Correction — and get certified as a junior web developer.
One of his projects has been to build a portfolio website so future employers can see all of his newly gained skills.
“It’s my way out,” McCaster said.
With buy-in from Holcomb and corrections leaders and the backing of some big-money philanthropists, Indiana’s push into “skilling up” some of the most marginalized people in the statehas been moving quickly.
The next hurdle will come as more formerly incarcerated kids and adults begin to be released and move into the workforce.
Other Holcomb workforce goals have fallen short
Last year, Holcomb set specific targets for the whole of his workforce development initiatives. He wanted 35,000 new job commitments from employers by the end of the year and 25,000 Hoosiers with some college to re-enroll in school. In January, he gave an update on those goals. The results were a mixed bag. The job commitments and degree-program enrollments fell short. One goal, though, the state has met ahead of schedule.
Holcomb wanted to have at least 1,000 inmates graduating from certificate programs that set them up for good-paying jobs when they’re released by 2020.
The computer coding program at Pendleton, the women’s prison and the three other facilities starting up this spring is one small but important piece of that. At other Indiana prisons, inmates are learning trades like welding and auto body repair — useful and needed skills that can lead to well-paying jobs when they’re released.
But when people talk about preparing residents for “the jobs of the future” — and many officials in just about every state office do — they’re not necessarily talking about welding. They’re talking about things such as computer coding.
High 5-figure salaries not uncommon in coding
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for coders and other computer programmers is $82,240 — more than twice the median wage for welders, fabricators and other advanced manufacturing jobs. And while the bureau is predicting demand for programmers to decline slightly over the next decade, the demand for computer-related occupations is predicted to increase at twice the average rate of all jobs.
About one year after The Last Mile’s launch here, those skills are being taught to more Indiana inmates.
The computer coding program for inmates first came to Indiana last spring. It started at San Quentin State Prison in 2010, and the Indiana Women’s Prison was its first location outside of California.
Co-founder Beverly Parenti, who started the program with her husband, Chris Redlitz, said Indiana was a no-brainer when The Last Mile was looking to expand because of Holcomb’s excitement about the work they were doing and commitment to giving offenders a second chance.
“To be able to work with an administration that has that type of vision for its citizens was really important to us,” Parenti said. “Because this is hard. What we’re doing is hard.
“We’re changing the way prison education is being administered. We’re creating new opportunities for jobs that are in high demand and skills that take a long time to learn.”
At the launch of Indiana’s program last April, Holcomb spoke of his pride in the women who were about to start it. At their graduation in December, he spoke of it again.
“You are making the most of your time (here),” Holcomb said, “and for that, we couldn’t be prouder.”
Two of the nine graduates had already been released. Jennifer Browning is continuing her education at a design and coding school in Indianapolis. Another was interviewing for jobs.
It’s a drop in the bucket of that 1,000-certificates goal set by Holcomb. But the drop will grow.
The Pendleton class started with 12 teens — including McCaster. It wasn’t for everyone, but there are 10 kids in it now and one student who started the program has already been released and is looking to continue his coding education, said Sondra Woods, program director at Pendleton.
Three other correctional facilities to begin coding classes
The program will grow as classes come online at two men’s facilities, in Putnamville and Plainfield, and one women’s facility, in Rockville.
When it began at Pendleton in December, it was the start of a major expansion for The Last Mile. Google.org gave the organization a $2 million grant to expand into three states — Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma — in 2019. In addition to the three Indiana facilities starting the program this year, it is also planning to launch at facilities in Michigan and Delaware. It will be in 17 correctional facilities across the country by the end of the year. Jack Cochran, director of expansion, said the goal is to be in 50 facilities within five years.
The goal of programs such as The Last Mile is twofold: to place more inmates in the workforce and reduce recidivism. The hope is people who leave prison with the skills to get a good job will not turn back to whatever it was that got them there.
Selling drugs landed Rachael Roberts at Indiana Women’s Prison, again. It wasn’t something she wanted to do, but Roberts said she had few options. She’d worked construction jobs before, but an injury made that nearly impossible anymore, she said. So she turned to the survival skills that she had.
“I used my tools I had to survive,” she said. “I was selling dope.”
Six weeks into her coding class at Indiana Women’s Prison, she was hoping that will change by the time she’s released. She’s been sentenced to serve until 2025.
“This is something way different,” she said. “This is going to be my survival tool.
“It’s definitely going keep me out of prison. I hope.”
Roberts hopes this time — her third — will be her last time at Indiana Women’s Prison.
This kind of recidivism, the return of offenders to prison after they’ve been released, is what The Last Mile is seeking to end. The program is still relatively small but so far, Parenti says, it’s working. Of the 55 or so former inmates nationwide who have graduated from the program and been released, none have returned to prison.
One coding graduate is inspiration to Indiana’s students
The reason is simple, said Jason Jones, a graduate of The Last Mile’s program at San Quentin.
Most former inmates re-offend when they’re released because their lives have not changed, he said. There were few opportunities available to them before prison and there are generally even fewer when they’re released. While public perceptions about the formerly incarcerated are starting to change, criminal justice reform — and the needed shifts inthe mindsetsof employers, landlords and would-be neighbors — havea long way to go.
He was raised in poverty, passed around between families he said didn’t want him and joined a gang by age 11. He was living that way, he said, because that’s how everyone around him was living. Before he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison at the age of 21, there were no opportunities to get out, no chance at a high-paying job in an in-demand field.
Now 35 and working as a software engineer at a tech company in San Francisco, Jones said the skills he gained in The Last Mile program at San Quentin, where it was started, changed his life.
“If it wasn’t for The Last Mile, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said. “It helped me reimagine what my life could be.”
Before he was released from San Quentin in September, he already had a signed contract to start work at Fandom, an entertainment and pop-culture website. It’s his first real job.
Jones’ story made him a mentor, if not something of a hero, to the inaugural class when he showed up for the Pendleton program’s kick-off in December.
There was much fanfare in the facility’s gym, wherethe 12 teens in matching maroon polos, elastic-waist khaki pants and white Velcro tennis shoes sat respectfully for the founders of The Last Mile. They nodded appreciatively when the governor of the state that sentenced them to juvenile detention said he was rooting for them.
They even cracked smiles at the jokes of MC Hammer — a celebrity-turned-The Last Mile board member whom they’re too young to have seen in his heyday.
But it was Jones who really connected with them. “I’ve been where you are,” he told them.
And he’s sticking with them. He Skypes with the class once a week and has talked about trying to fly some of the kids out to visit California once they’re released — he wants to show them what’s really possible for them if they make the most of this second chance.
That’s exactly what Brian Ward intends to do. The Indianapolis teen and McCaster were the two Pendleton students whose stories Holcomb highlightedduring his visit. Before starting the program, Ward said, he didn’t know anything about computer coding.
Now, he’s built the beginnings of a clothing website and invented a simple page that let’s users play “rock, paper, scissors.”
And when he’s released from Pendleton later this month, he has a plan for what comes next. He’ll be going back to finish high school and hopes to continue his education with a scholarship to 1150 Academy. The coding school said it will be working with The Last Mile graduates to help them finish their education.
“I really want to do this,” Ward said. “Every time I look at what I created, I get a rush.”