Engineering second chances through code

How Capital One helped launch a computer coding class inside a Delaware prison.

It's early evening. And the computer lab inside the Baylor Women's Correctional Institute (BWCI) is unusually busy. With their eyes fixated on the screens in front of them, the twelve students in the room aren't just taking advantage of the facility's recreation time—they're taking a class, the first of its kind for the correctional institute.

The 15-hour course—which touches on everything from basic web development techniques to personalized webpage construction—is an innovative way to introduce new technology to a population that in recent years has had very little experience with it. Traditionally, correctional education programs focus on vocational training in subjects like basic life skills or the culinary arts, designed to prepare inmates for life after release.

"This is a monumental moment for correctional education in Delaware," said Dr. Dwight BoNey, Teacher Supervisor with the Delaware Department of Education. "This class has provided inmates with advanced computer skills that would otherwise not have been available to them."

Despite the prominent role technology plays in our society, prison education on the subject has been largely an afterthought. How can newly-released inmates be expected to thrive in today's world if their last interaction with technology came by way of the flip phone? Simply applying for jobs requires an understanding of computer software, email formatting and the ability to update or edit a resume digitally. On top of all that, candidates need to possess the skills that can help them stand out from their peers.

The reality is, technology is constantly evolving, and the pace at which it's doing so threatens to leave a lot of people behind. Which is part of the reason why Capital One launched the Future Edge initiative—a $150 million investment aimed at arming people with the knowledge to thrive in a digital age. A big area of focus is empowering individuals with 21st century skills that can help them in their careers.

One associate working on the initiative is Jenn W-M., a Community Relations Manager at Capital One. It was Jenn who started investigating educational opportunities for Delaware inmates. "It was clear that educational opportunities offered to inmates are not aligned with a digital world." The solution, Jenn believed, could come through a Capital One funded coding course.

The magnitude of the course and the unique environment in which it's being taught, meant that additional resources were needed in order to effectively pull it off. That's why Jenn turned to the talented team at Girl Develop It (GDI) for help. The national, non-profit organization works to break down barriers for women interested in learning about web and software development. "Our classes were created to invert the ratio of women. To make them the majority so they could feel free to ask questions without fearing judgment," says LeeAnn Kinney, director of Outreach and Special Initiatives for GDI.

Through close collaboration with Dr. BoNey and the BWCI staff, GDI put together a curriculum that not only fit the ideal learning agenda, but also the prison's strict no internet policy. "We had to tailor some of the curricula," Kinney said. "But we were able to use software that would mimic the environment we needed to work on certain topics."

Excitement for the program grew throughout the prison. From the inmates and security staff to the education director and the warden, everyone worked together to ensure the class ran efficiently. "Everybody was on board with the idea immediately," remembered Dr. BoNey. "I think we all understood the impact that this class could have. I had a lengthy waiting list, to say the least."

The class was so appealing that even some of the correctional officers joined as students. Which, according to Dr. BoNey, was an unprecedented move. "That has never occurred before in any of our classes," he said. "I think, in a way, it put everyone on an equal playing field. And the students saw each other in a different light."

For the next five evenings, the team worked closely alongside both inmates and officers on a wide range of web development lessons. And, while some of the students hadn't accessed this level of technology in quite some time, it didn't slow them down. "Our goal was to demystify web development, show these women that they could learn these materials, and to give them the confidence and skills that would stand out on a résumé," recalled Kinney. "It was amazing to see how quickly most of the students were able to pick up what we were teaching."

Overwhelming interest in the program and the response from the students have prompted BWCI and Capital One to continue a second phase of education. "We're bringing back as many of the same individuals from the pilot as we can for phase two," said Dr. BoNey. "We realized that there were some areas that we could have gone into more depth, so that the students can build upon what they learned originally. Because this stuff isn't easy."

No, the curriculum isn't easy, but then again neither is landing a job with little knowledge of today's technology. And that's why this class is so important, not just to the students, but also to those who made it a reality. "It was incredibly inspiring to partner with so many people to make this program happen and to hear all the positive feedback," Kinney said. "We're so grateful to have been able to teach these women, change their lives, and open them up to a new experience and skillset." The hope is that through additional support, these women will continue to develop the skills and confidence it takes to seek out new opportunities and forge a brighter future.

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