Coding classes help inmates prepare for productive life outside prison
Jackson — Bad choices took John Mannion off a productive path, ultimately resulting in him serving a minimum nine-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
“Society has its rules. I broke 'em,” Mannion said Tuesday at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.
Now, at 36, Mannion is taking steps to learn a skill that one day may allow him to legally, and reliably, support his family.
For the last two months, Mannion has been part of a group of about 20 students at the facility learning the rudiments of front-end web design.
Their training is provided by The Last Mile, a corrections educational nonprofit that started in California in 2010, when co-founder Chris Redlitz, a Silicon Valley “early-stage investor,” accepted a speaking offer at San Quentin prison.
What should have been a 30-minute speech turned to a three-hour engagement and resulted in what he and wife and co-founder Beverly Parenti describe as a “lifetime commitment,” a training module now active at 17 prison facilities in five states, most recently Michigan.
"Computers, since I was a little kid, have made sense to me," Mannion said. "When you tell a computer to do something, if it doesn't, it's not the computer's fault. It's us. Coding has always calmed me because it made sense to me."
An internet of their own
Where coders in professional settings can rely on internet guides, the inmates at Parnall don’t have that access.
“We basically had to build a fake internet that’s all self-contained” using cloud technology, Redlitz explained, for security reasons.
It’s from that cloud that students can access lessons remotely, review them if needed and then apply what they’ve learned.
Some participants, like Mannion, gravitate to computers. Others, Redlitz said, “have never touched a computer.”
In August 2012, Mannion took a plea deal in Oakland County on a charge of armed robbery, and was sentenced to nine to 20 years in prison. His earliest release date is two years away, in August 2021.
When that day approaches, Mannion said, he and his wife will determine which area of Michigan has the most job opportunities for a new web designer. That's where the family will start its new life.
What the program looks for, more than experience or even intelligence, is “desire,” Redlitz said.
That, and a clean disciplinary record.
Participants can’t have been disciplined in the 18 months prior to applying, and Redlitz said there’s a “one-strike policy” for disciplinary incidents once inside the program. The hard line on discipline is meant to put both program participants and those who someday hope to participate on a better path, behaviorally.
Convicted murderers can participate. Cyber criminals, however, cannot, Redlitz said, for security reasons.
The Last Mile actually started in the California prison system as an entrepreneurial training program. During that speech at San Quentin, Redlitz explained his "three Ps" — presence, perseverance, passion — and realized that most men in the room had all three. Some even had business plans ready, which they’d hand-written with golf pencils.
Coding for success
Redlitz rushed home and told Parenti — who was worried that his speaking engagement had run so long, given its prison setting — that “you have to see what I saw.”
She took him up on that, and The Last Mile was created. But teaching entrepreneurship had two problems, which are not readily fixable: it doesn’t scale because it’s so “high-touch.” And it didn’t give inmates the hard, employable returning skills they'd need outside of prison.
And the soft skills the program taught, like having eye contact and a firm handshake, communicating effectively, or giving a public speech, didn’t necessarily fatten the resume of a returning citizen trying to stay on the straight path.
In 2014, the focus shifted to coding. With those first few classes of graduates, Redlitz said he would call startup CEOs he knew and ask them to hire his trainees as a favor.
Before long the phone calls were coming his way: “Do you have any new guys?”
These days, the program trains men, women, and youth — about 250 altogether between the five states. It has hundreds of graduates thus far. Some are making six figures, Redlitz said.
Jason Jones, 36, was all set to teach a coding workshop to youth prisoners, but his first lesson would have nothing to do with programming computers to carry out commands.
“You don’t look like no engineer,” one of the youths said of the half-black, half-Samoan man with a lengthy prison record and two neck tattoos.
Truly in control
“How many people from their community make money based on the way they think?” Jones said. “I saw I had to change the perception.”
To do that, Jones had to draw on his recent experience winning over skeptics.
When Jones first applied to The Last Mile’s entrepreneurship program, he was denied. Redlitz didn’t like him and didn’t think he was a good guy or would be a positive influence. Jones admits as much years later.
“The whole time, I thought it was because I’m black,” Jones said. “In reality, it was my disciplinary record. I just wanted to be the hardest Crip for my area. That’s all I wanted.”
But his “OGs” in his prison gang thought he had more to offer than that, Jones recalls. They steered him back to a productive path by encouraging him to advance his education.
A week later, on his 31st birthday, in October 2014, he got a second chance when he was offered a spot in the coding program. By that point he’d been a gang member for 20 years after being initiated at age 11.
“The gang mentality is all being in control,” Jones said.
Dealing drugs in prison helped him maintain the illusion of control. Coding helped him realize he wanted control to be more than an illusion.
He took to the training so well that, after his release from prison, he became lead remote instructor for The Last Mile, teaching inmates and converting skeptics one classroom at a time, via Google Hangout.
Google.org has given $32 million to criminal justice-related causes over the last three years, said staffer Maab Ibrahim.
On Tuesday, he came dressed for success in a black power suit as he sought to encourage inmates in blue-and-orange jump suits to trust their training and take it seriously. He was sitting where they were a year ago.
After returning home from prison, his children, now 13, 15, and 18, told him they’d Googled him and were proud of what they found. None of it mentioned the crime that landed him in prison — shooting a man he accused of molesting his then-8-month-old daughter.
“Everything was positive. It was about the person I had become,” Jones said. "All the good just pushed everything else down, out of sight. That’s how you control the narrative.”