Mich. inmates learn coding through Google partnership

The year-long program teaches coding, accountability and teamwork to prepare inmates for the workforce

Marie Weidmayer

BLACKMAN TWP., Mich. — For six hours, five days a week, 19 inmates at Jackson’s Parnall Correctional Facility are learning computer coding through a partnership with The Last Mile and Google.org.

The coding program began Aug. 26. A $2 million grant from Google.org expanded the program to Indiana in 2018 and also funded the expansion to Michigan and Kansas.

A partnership between The Last Mile, Google.org and the Parnall Correctional Facility teaches inmates coding for computers and websites.
A partnership between The Last Mile, Google.org and the Parnall Correctional Facility teaches inmates coding for computers and websites. (Photo/J. Scott Park /MLive.com/TNS)

“I’m glad I got this opportunity,” inmate Allin Griffis said at a news conference inside the prison’s Vocational Village. “It’s challenging and rewarding at the same time.”

With the JavaScript they’ve learned so far, inmate Devin Wilson demonstrated that students can make a spaceship move around the page and change shapes, sizes and opacity. With 14 months left on his sentence, he said he’s excited to be learning this skill.

“I love the opportunity,” he said. “I would like to do the behavioral parts of websites.”

The program is highly selective. First, inmates cannot have any infractions on their records in the last 18 months to qualify. They must also complete an application with essay questions and an interview with The Last Mile employees and corrections staff.

If an inmate commits an infraction during the one-year program, they are kicked out. The zero-tolerance policy exists because the program requires a show of commitment in and out of class, The Last Mile co-founder Chris Redlitz said.

“This isn’t a gift, they work really hard to get here,” Redlitz said.'

Some of the code languages students are learning in the yearlong program include JavaScript, HTML, jQuery and CSS.

A background with coding is not necessary for the program. Some students hadn’t touched a computer before and others had previous coding instruction, instructor Craig Beck said.

Inmate Eric Kanack coded websites in the 1990s and his previous experience makes learning new ways easier he said. He also tutors other students in the class.

“They totally love the coding,” Beck said. “These guys are going to walk out of here with a skill that’s in demand.”

Many of the students never held a job, so part of the program teaches them soft skills, including interview skills, how to process emotions at work and how to work in teams, program graduate and instructor Jason Jones said.

“Our goal is to put people in a position to be successful,” Jones said. “We pride ourselves on producing quality human beings. Not just quality coders but quality people.

This program is good not only for the inmates, but also the state as a whole, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said at the press conference.

“It’s our responsibility to work with partners, to work with institutions to use every tool at our disposal to ensure we are maximizing the potential for every person in the state of Michigan,” Gilchrist said. “This program is a clear articulation of that standard.”

There are 17 prisons across five states with The Last Mile program. The program boasts a 0 percent recidivism, or re-offense, rate since it launched in 2014 at San Quentin State Prison in California, co-founder Beverly Parenti said.

Around 800 people have graduated from the program and about 250 inmates are currently in the class, she said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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