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Code for success

New computer class gives women inmates valuable job skills

Women incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud participate in a program to learn how to code in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Python.

Kristi Eaton

Chasity Choate knows the basics of computers—how to use Microsoft Excel and Word, for example. But the inmate at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, who has been behind bars for about eight years, has missed a lot when it comes to staying abreast of technological changes.

Choate is part of a class of 18 women at the medium-security prison taking part in a new program to learn computer coding, the first of its kind in Oklahoma.

“Everybody knows that our country isn’t very felon-friendly,” said Choate, who was convicted of kidnapping and robbery or attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon in 2011. “It’s just what it is right now. I know we have some great people out there trying to change that for our workforce. The truth is, a lot of Americans are felons and getting a job as a felon is very difficult. This training is going to help to get back into the workforce.”

Choate spoke during a recent event highlighting the start of the class.

“When I get out there and go to a job interview and there is somebody with my credentials who is not a felon, and there is me, what’s the likelihood of them picking me?” she said. “But now I will have this, so not only can I give them what they’re looking for but provide technology as well.”

For years Oklahoma has incarcerated more women than any other state in the nation. Last year, the state overtook Louisiana as the No. 1 incarcerating state for men as well.

Newly-elected Gov. Kevin Stitt has said criminal justice reform is a central tenet to his administration.

“I want to make sure that we do everything we can to provide a great future for people who are incarcerated … that starts with job training, technology, business skills, and we need more of these public-private partnerships to create careers coming out of incarceration,” he said.

During his State of the State address in February, Stitt said he was requesting $1.5 million in his budget for Women in Recovery, a prison diversion program that teaches life skills and offers counseling. He also spoke about a woman named Melinda—a daughter, mother, and Oklahoman. She also was a drug offender. “When I met her, she was looking for hope, for a better life for her son, and for an opportunity to change course.”

Today, Stitt said, she has been employed at his Gateway Mortgage Group for 13 years.

“Her entry into the workforce was key to remaining sober and to becoming a thriving individual in our society,” he said during the address.

During the Mabel Bassett event, Stitt implored the women to take advantage of the class and not allow their past to define them. He said they can move forward. “I tell people all the time you’re just a few right decisions from really moving the needle and being back in society and taking care of your families,” he said.

“It’s also a great reminder that we are only a few bad decisions from being exactly where you’re at. I know that each and every one of you, whatever mistake you made, you’d take it back, and so we believe in second chances in Oklahoma.”

After he spoke, Stitt toured the classroom where the women will work eight hours a day, five days a week, learning HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Python. The curriculum is also expanding to include web and logo design, data visualization and UX/UI.

Inmates are not allowed to use the internet in prison, so they will use a special software programming platform that mimics the internet while also giving them a live coding experience, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The class at Mabel Bassett is one of many launched by The Last Mile, a nonprofit which started in 2010 as a six-month entrepreneurship program at San Quentin State Prison in California. The program offered its first computer coding class in 2014 and has since grown to 10 prisons in the U.S.

“The Last Mile is more than a training program. It’s a pathway to acceptance,” said executive director Beverly Parenti. She said the Department of Corrections was a little skeptical when they were first approached about the program, but ultimately gave the thumbs up. Parenti noted that the program has a zero-percent recidivism rate and that Google employees will act as remote instructors to the women for their two six-month class sessions.

Rapper MC Hammer, a Last Mile board member whom Parenti has counted as a supporter since day one, spoke at the Mabel Bassett event.

“It’s not something to be proud of,” Hammer said of Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate. “Human beings need to be free. We were made to be free.”

In addition to the Last Mile, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation are also supporting the coding program.

Aly Tamboura is a graduate of The Last Mile. He was in prison just two years ago and now works for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which tackles issues like education, science, and the criminal justice system.

“Oklahoma … has faced immense challenges on the criminal justice reform front, but has also shown a great deal of forward momentum on solutions … voters have signaled that criminal justice reform is a priority,” he said.

Tamboura told the women that when he was incarcerated, he often wondered what he would do with his life once he was out.

“I’m here to tell you that my life is great now,” he said. “That’s largely due to The Last Mile and learning to write computer code.”

The only difference he sees between the women at Mabel Bassett and other software designers is that the women have faced greater challenges during their lives. “You guys are just beginning to learn a skill that will change the trajectory of your life.”

Most people would give up after experiencing what these women have been through, Tamboura said. “But it makes you strong. You will be able to get through things that other software engineers haven’t had to endure. You look at things through a different lens.”

The women in the program cannot have a history of cyber or sex crimes, disciplinary infractions for at least 18 months, and no life-without-parole sentences. They also must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be within 36 months of release, according to the DOC.

Toc’Quianna Culver is another student in the class. She was convicted in 2007 of second-degree murder. She has less than three years left behind bars. She said the new coding class will help her because coming back to prison as an inmate will no longer be a choice.

“I can come back when I’m ready to give back, and I can leave on my own terms,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about my financials. It’s just a wonderful thing.”