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Patrick McCarthy headshot

This Initiative Reduces Recidivism by Teaching Incarcerated People to Code

Lines of code on a laptop.

(Image: Negative Space/Pexels)

When Dirk Van Velzen founded the Prison Scholar Fund while incarcerated in 2006, he dreamed of the chance to gain a college education during his sentence to prepare him for a new life upon his release. Now, the fund makes Van Velzen’s dream a reality for other people who are incarcerated by giving them opportunities to further their education and gain professional development skills that will help them find a job.

While it can be hard to find employers who hire people with criminal records, the ever-expanding tech industry is creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated job seekers, Van Velzen said. The fund collaborates with Colorado Technical University’s Coding Dojo to help prepare them for careers in tech.  

“Since a lot of the computer programming work can be done remotely, that kind of opens the door for ‘riskier’ candidates,” Van Velzen said. “On top of that, the computer industry is kind of the Wild West for employment. Small startups just need software engineers.”

Van Velzen identified mid-level technology companies and successful startups as a burgeoning potential job market for people who were formerly incarcerated.

The coding boot camp

Van Velzen first founded the Prison Scholar Fund to address funding gaps in educational programming for people who are incarcerated. He envisioned offering computer science and coding programs well before his release in 2015, but the lack of computer access in prisons made this idea a non-starter. Nonetheless, the fund served 110 people in 24 states by the time of Van Velzen’s release, demonstrating the need for such a program.

Van Velzen revisited the coding idea in 2021 and reached out to Seattle-based coding companies. Coding Dojo was supportive of the plan, but COVID-19 protocols prevented educators from conducting a coding boot camp inside prisons. So, the program was adapted to be offered to people scheduled to be released. 

The inaugural class

Since the requirements for completing the program were so rigorous — involving 10 to 12 hours of classwork per day for 14 weeks — the team was quite selective when choosing students. While the team could assess math and logic-based skills, there isn’t an equivalent method of testing for the stubborn determination required to complete the boot camp. 

“How do you find a person who is crazy enough to do this program?” Van Velzen asked.

The team eventually selected three students to serve as the coding boot camp’s inaugural class. All three students graduated from the program and are beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labor. One of the graduates, David Moore, performed so well on his examinations that he earned a black belt from the Coding Dojo. Moore was since hired as an instructor, whose responsibilities include identifying potential employment opportunities for future boot camp graduates. 

“We've hired him also to be an implemented navigator, so basically, his job is to find a job for him,” Van Velzen said of Moore, an employee he expects to lose to a higher-paying competitor soon. “I’ll lose him because he's just outstanding. But I’m also really happy to see him go to greener pastures.”

Obstacles to employment remain 

Programs like the coding boot camp can only work with a few individuals at a time because extensive resources are required to identify, provide resources for, and educate each person. Even after graduating from the program, coding graduates have to navigate several hiring challenges upon their release.

Employers are theoretically open to hiring people who were formerly incarcerated, but in practice, they are often biased against them in the hiring process. For example, the coding boot camp’s first graduate reached out to 380 potential employers, received 30 responses, and after 30 conversations secured two “maybes," Van Velzen said. 

“It’s funny, the times that we do have a potential ‘yes,' it's usually because the person we're talking to [at the hiring company] has had some interaction with the criminal justice system,” Van Velzen said. “If you understand how unfair the system is, and how easy it is to get caught up, then with that conversation you can get there. But it’s tough to have that conversation.”

Though the rate at which people return to prison after their release is dropping, it was still at 39 percent as of 2021, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. It's higher in some states, including over 50 percent in Pennsylvania and New Mexico. The reason for the dropping rate on a national level is unclear due to lack of research, but the Council on Criminal Justice think tank theorized that investments in reentry programs and private-sector initiatives to hire people who were formerly incarcerated played a role.  

This initiative from the Prison Scholar Fund and Coding Dojo is just one example that proves embracing the education and employment of people who are currently and were formerly incarcerated can help reduce that number further.

Patrick McCarthy headshot

Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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