At San Quentin State Prison, inmates in The Last Mile Code.7370 program are learning to code.
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Barton “Sky” Buenavista, a 48-year-old Marine and father of two who has served 20 years for unarmed robbery, earlier this year made an unusual request: to extend his time in prison by one year so he could take software coding classes.
Buenavista is one of 21 inmates at San Quentin State Prison just north of San Francisco who graduated this week from a first-of-its-kind tech incubator that trains inmates to code as well as design and pitch their projects to technology investors and executives and fellow coders, much like “demo days” held just miles away in Silicon Valley.
The rub: The inmates, many of whom went to prison before the Internet revolution, have to build software without access to the Web and without ever touching a smartphone or tablet.
On Wednesday, San Quentin coders for the first time showed off their programming skills to the tech world. They worked on a range of projects including Fitness Monkey, an online life coaching service to help people recover from addiction through physical fitness; GPA (Getting Parents Attention) for parents to track academic performance of student athletes; Artfelt Creations, an ecommerce site to market the works of incarcerated artists; and Project Tycho, which uses data visualization to show the historic patterns of childhood diseases such as chicken pox, measles, influenza and polio in the United States.
“I am speechless. This is far beyond what I expected,” said venture capitalist Kate Mitchell, co-founder and partner of Scale Venture Partners, who gave the short presentations from the men in prison blues a standing ovation.
“I go to a lot of demo days. I meet entrepreneurs at the best schools all over the world,” she said. “I can’t say any impressed me as much as this (demo day) did, and impressed me not because of where they came from. They are beyond where I see others.”
For the last six weeks, Buenavista crammed the basics of coding, eight hours a day in class, another four in his bunk. He designed a Flappy Bird-inspired game and helped create a website for a nonprofit started by a former inmate.
He now dreams of joining his wife, a hydro-engineer, in Austin, and finding a job in the tech industry there as a software engineer. He says he’s determined to be “as competitive a Web developer as any out there in the free world.”
The coding classes have become so popular that inmates from prisons all over California are asking for transfers to San Quentin, says Charles Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority.
Husband-and-wife team Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti started teaching entrepreneurship at San Quentin in 2010 through a non-profit program they created The Last Mile. Next, the tech industry veterans launched Code.7370, named for the Standard Industrial Classification Code for computer programming, to teach inmates to build mobile apps, websites and online games.
Today, the classes are housed inside an old printing shop with towering ceilings and exposed piping inside California’s oldest prison. Soon this technology center will be expanded to make room for more classrooms and a work area where, starting next year, Code.7370 graduates will earn as much as $20 an hour writing code for businesses outside the prison walls through a new non-profit Turn2U Inc. formed by the couple will get underway next year.
In 2016, Redlitz and Parenti has ambitions to offer programs in five more facilities, two for women. Their efforts are increasingly getting noticed in Silicon Valley. Recent visitors include Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan.
Music icon MC Hammer, who is active in the tech industry and sits on the board of The Last Mile, says he’s thrilled by inmates “learning how to code, learning how to create start-ups from idea to product.”
“Nobody is twisting anyone’s arms. These guys are self-motivated and they are doing an excellent job,” he said.
Bringing the technology world inside prison walls has not been easy. Inmates are cut off from the technology they are building. Prison rules bar inmates from accessing the Internet so many have never sent an email, searched for something on Google or updated their status on Facebook. So Redlitz and Parenti created a system that simulates a live coding environment.
What’s even more impressive to visitors is the combination of creativity and sweat equity of the inmates. For instance, the team behind GPA has a combined 53 years behind bars but zero experience in building software, yet had to devise mobile features without touching mobile devices.
Programs such as these, which forge entrepreneurs and engineers, are seen as instrumental in breaking the cycle of crime and incarceration that disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos. Pattillo says they reduce recidivism by giving men and soon women valuable skills they can put to use in the booming tech economy. Apprenticeship programs such as these have less than 8% recidivism rate compared with more than 60% for the general prison population.
Two of the graduates of The Last Mile who have since been released from prison returned to San Quentin on Wednesday.
James Houston, 42, who was incarcerated for 18 years for second-degree murder before his release in 2013, is working on Teen Tech Hub, an after-school program for at-risk youth in his hometown of Richmond, Calif. Heracio “Ray” Harts, 42, who was released in 2013 after serving 8 1/2 years for manslaughter, has a non-profit called Healthy Hearts Institute to encourage nutrition, stress management and physical fitness to combat childhood obesity in the hardscrabble housing projects of Pittsburg, Calif., where he grew up. They presented their visions alongside teams of San Quentin coders who created websites and even an online game for the organizations.
At the conclusion of the presentations, Redlitz beamed: “They sound like engineers.”
Perched on the edge of her seat in the audience, Mitchell replied in a hushed voice: “They sound like CEOs.”
Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn
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