Program Brings Computer Coding to Inmates in Oklahoma

“We all know that beyond these walls, our country is not very felon-friendly," said one woman serving out a prison sentence in Oklahoma who is participating in a coding program. "This program will give us that chance.”

by Dale Denwalt, The Oklahoman / February 13, 2019
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — Eighteen women clad in orange jumpsuits, each serving their time at Oklahoma’s medium-security prison in McLoud, sat in classroom No. 9 on Monday to begin their second day of learning computer coding.

As the class logged in to computers, a cadre of visitors filed in behind them: media, criminal justice reform advocates, Gov. Kevin Stitt and his entourage. The class cheered at the arrival of M.C. Hammer, the entertainer who now is a board member for The Last Mile, the nonprofit that launched the coding classes and graduated 500 students in correctional facilities across the country.

“If you give people a different perspective, just show them the world is bigger than the block we’re on, they see the world differently,” Hammer said at a reception earlier that day. “This skill set, software engineering, it can save lives.”

It was an auspicious day at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center and a celebration for those who guided the program to Oklahoma, which incarcerates women at a higher rate than any government in the world.

“I believe this program will be life-changing,” said Mabel Bassett class member Chasity Choate. “We all know that beyond these walls, our country is not very felon-friendly. This program will give us that chance.”

Choate and her classmates will learn computer coding, specifically languages like HTML, Javascript, CSS and SQL over the next year. There are challenges, however, in learning front-end web development while disconnected from the outside world. The Last Mile co-founders Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz and their team had to develop a simulated Internet that allows students to write code and see their results.

Each student sits at her own computer in the small classroom and can watch real-time lessons from computer science experts from Silicon Valley.

“As a software engineer, your best friend on the outside is Google. We don’t have Google inside, so we had to create a repository of content that our students could access,” Redlitz said. “They’re learning technology, but we’re also using technology to really build this program.”

Parenti first learned about Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate from former Gov. Mary Fallin at a White House gathering last year. The program at Mabel Bassett is the fourth one installed at a women’s prison.

The Last Mile is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and locally by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation. Priscilla Chan, who is the wife of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, planned to visit the students Tuesday. Lobek Taylor Family Foundation Executive Director Elizabeth Frame Ellison said her organization was drawn to the program’s ability to encourage entrepreneurship along with community and economic development.

“With shrinking budgets from the government, I think public-private partnerships are really the best solution to bring about more change and make an additional impact,” Frame Ellison said. “I see nonprofits really being able to take risks in pilot programs that might take a lot longer to implement in government.”

Toc’Quianna Culver, another inmate selected to join the The Last Mile classroom, is already a college senior majoring in business. She’s been behind bars for a dozen years and now has real optimism for her life when she’s released in another 2 1/2 years.

“This has given me an opportunity to be painted in such a different light,” Culver said. “I don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to see me as a felon; my work can speak for itself. The ability to be the answer to their problem will actually be my ticket.”

©2019 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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