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Prisoners Are Learning Computer Programming

Gary Valentino Hollis learns to build a webpage from inside San Quentin State Prison. (VOA / JoAnn Mar)

Gary Valentino Hollis learns to build a webpage from inside San Quentin State Prison. (VOA / JoAnn Mar)

Prisoners in California are learning how to write programs for computers -- an activity known as computer coding. It is a skill that many employers are seeking in new workers.

Computer coding is now being taught at San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco. The class began last year. It is believed to be one of the first such classes in an American prison.

“OK, so, starting with a simple webpage, just an HTML tag…”

Eighteen prisoners are listening closely to their teacher. He is speaking to them on a video conference system.

"Bingo! Here we go, and then we push control, save, and it should come back refresh…”

Gary Valentino Hollis is learning to build a webpage with the computer programs Java Script, HTML and CSS.

Mr. Hollis was found guilty of attempted murder in the 1990s. He has been in prison for 20 years. Soon after he completes the coding class in April, he will be released from San Quentin.

“Oh, my God, this is truly a(n) honor and a blessing to be in this type of setting, especially here in prison. This is a million dollar dream because it gives a lot of men hope, such as myself. I’m getting out in about 108 days, but who’s counting? Getting out, I, I know I have a skill now I can market to provide the means for my family and to be a productive citizen than I was 20-some years ago. You know, everyone deserve(s) a new chance, so this is my new chance, my new way of life.”

The class was the idea of a non-profit group called The Last Mile. Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti set up the group. Both have worked in the high-tech industry.

On his first visit to San Quentin, Chris Redlitz wanted to find a way to teach prisoners skills that would help them get a job after they were released. At first, Beverly Parenti was not supportive.

“And my first reaction was ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s not actually what I said, but I don’t think I’ll say that on the radio. And then I actually went in and met some of the men and talked to them and learned some of their stories and saw their passion and enthusiasm and intelligence and I quickly agreed that I would help Chris launch The Last Mile inside San Quentin, which was not an easy task, but we were determined. And we did not take ‘no’ for an answer. We took ‘no’ as a kind of a way to work harder. And so we basically had a start-up of our own inside San Quentin and that’s the beginning of The Last Mile.”

Chris Redlitz talks to the class. (VOA / JoAnn Mar)

Chris Redlitz talks to the class. (VOA / JoAnn Mar)

The first problem was no Internet connection. Prisons in the United States do not let prisoners use the Internet. So Mr. Redlitz and a computer coding school called “Hack Reactor” developed a program that does not require connectivity. Hack Reactor provides volunteers to train the prisoners. They provide training on a video system from outside the prison.

There was another problem. When the program began, half of the students had never used a computer. Gary Valentino Hollis said learning computer programming was like learning a foreign language.

“I mean, I don’t even know how to turn on a telephone. I don’t even have a clue what an app is or how to turn it on. There’s times I feel very, very frustrated, but to give up heart, it’s not in the blood. There’s not one guy in here that has that on their mind of giving up. We all work as, as a team. The thing is, see on the wall up here they got, it says ‘Believe In The Process’? And that’s what it’s about -- believing in the process. And that’s keep working and it eventually clicks.”

The class lasts for six months. Prisoners study for 10 hours a day, four days a week. If students miss class or behave poorly they are immediately removed from the class.

Chris Redlitz says he believes the class will help the prisoners when they are released.

“Y’know, the opportunities are huge -- especially in this industry. You know, if you can write great code, people really don’t care much about your background -- just write great code and you’ve got a job.”

When the prisoners complete the course and are released from prison, there is a good chance they will not return. That is because they will be able to find a job that pays well.

Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti hope to expand The Last Mile training program to other prisons in the western United States.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

JoAnn Mar reported this story from San Quentin Prison. Christopher Cruise wrote the story in VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

coding (to code) v. to change (information) into a set of letters, numbers, or symbols that can be read by a computer

setting n. the place and conditions in which something happens or exists

passion n. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something

enthusiasmn. strong excitement about something; a strong feeling of active interest in something that you like or enjoy

determined adj. having a strong feeling that you are going to do something and that you will not allow anyone or anything to stop you (often followed by to + verb)

app n. (informal) application; a computer program for a mobile device

frustrated adj. angry, discouraged or upset because of being unable to do or complete something

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