A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison

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In this state, prisoners can knit or sew clothing in their cells. They can purchase yarn to do this, except for green yarn.

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One inmate told me this is because the prison administration is worried that men will knit entire camouflaged outfits that will blend into the green lawns surrounding the prison and sneak away.

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Prisons sometimes receive funding for educational programs and then take months or years to provide any classes for inmates.

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Prisoners were banned from growing Jalapeño peppers in the prison gardens becuase the administration was worried they could “weaponize” them. On the other hand, hot sauce and pickled Jalapeños are available from the commissary

Squash

A man who’d served over 13 years told me about the warm summer during which the prison’s farm grew over 3,000 lbs. of squash for food banks.  Nevertheless, the entire horticultural program was cancelled and all the gardens allowed to go to seed when a few prisoners began distributing surplus organic produce to each other for free in contravention of the rules.

In a prison there are very few sacred spaces where the nature of a prisoner’s charge doesn’t matter, his race doesn’t matter, where he comes from and who he is doesn’t matter. At the best of times, one of these few places is the classroom, particularly in the presence of outside visitors.

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A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison

Greenwood a few days after the explosion

Early on Wednesday morning of this week, my Seattle neighborhood was rocked by a large natural gas explosion which destroyed three local businesses and damaged many other buildings.  This happened at the center of the neighborhood commercial district — a place I go every day.  For these three businesses:  Mr Gyros, Neptune Coffee and Greenwood Quickstop, the destruction was total.

I’d always hear about the change in human and community behavior after a disaster — perhaps most famously in New York after 911 … and while this is surely no 911 (nine firefighters sustained injuries, no one died) I’ve observed the same sort of phenomenon here in our little neighborhood.  More strangers talked to me this week than every before.  People gave money to support the destroyed businesses and employees.  Drank beer to raise money.  Gave more money.  Some school kids at Greenwood Elementary formed themselves into the shape of a heart that was seen by the news helicopters hanging overhead all week.  Here are a few images of what the neighborhood looked like today, two days later, as cleanup began:

 

Greenwood a few days after the explosion

Coding in prison: Clallam Bay and UnLoop

On Monday I was privileged to join group of technology volunteers to spend the day at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in rural Washington State.  The trip was part of a program sponsored by UnLoop, an organization here in Seattle on a mission to build a pipeline of talent from prison to tech. It makes sense in the abstract right?  There’s a huge unmet labor demand in the technology industry.  At the  same time, we live in a country with almost unbelievable levels of incarceration.

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Clallam Bay
Prison is the opposite of an abstraction.  To enter Clallam Bay, our group passed through no less than nine electronically controlled doors. We left the internet, mobile devices, the cloud, social networks and our own complicated virtual lives behind.

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Calibrating the robot
The workshop led by UnLoop was designed as an introduction to programming for students who had never coded before. By that measure, it was clearly a success — coding happened … lots of it.  We divided up into small groups, each a mixture of volunteers and participants from the inside, and hacked away at moving around little robots.  The time sped by.

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But for me there was more to it.  While I’d heard about the prison’s programming class before the trip, but what I wasn’t prepared for was meeting its senior students.  These were folks who had spent a year or two of their lives learning to code. Several men had written complex video games from scratch.  Some had mastered non-easy languages like C and C++, and were moving on to C#.  Several had learned entire web stacks without the benefit of Google, Stack Overflow or anything else.

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I met several developers inside who — incarceration aside — could walk in to most technology interviews in Seattle and end up getting a fair, stable job offer.  Right now this is clearly still a dream — the barriers to employment are serious and many.  But at least from the industry side, they are artificial.

I went to prison carrying nothing but emerged with a new burden, a new vision.  To build a prison-to-tech pipeline, we need only start judging developers by their ability and desire, and not just their history of incarceration.  We need rational strategies and perhaps new enterprises to build willingness, ensure security and  encourage stability.  We need to do all of this because it’s right and just — this is a problem, and we can solve it.

Most problems are opportunities.  And there a few greater opportunities than an artificially under-utilized resource.  The results of allowing incarcerated or formerly-incarcertaed developers to do what they were clearly put on this planet to do will be not only good, but profitable —  in every sense of that word.   More justice, more stability, less recidivism.  More innovation, more utility, more dedication and yes more profit.

Want to go to prison and see for yourself?  Contact UnLoop.

Coding in prison: Clallam Bay and UnLoop