Computer Coding Class Offers An Unexpected Career Path For Tennessee Inmates | Nashville Public Radio

Computer Coding Class Offers An Unexpected Career Path For Tennessee Inmates

Oct 10, 2019

Technology has transformed the employment landscape. And a Nashville-based organization sees the rise of computers as a unique opportunity to help one particularly vulnerable group find jobs: inmates.

Class is now in session for a new group of future coders.

George Muhammad is no stranger to computers. Muhammad was 13 when he got his first laptop, a Dell that ran on Windows 98. He's been tearing computers apart ever since.

"I broke it down, tore it up. My parents were mad," he says. "But I ended up fixing it and putting it back together. And from then I fell in love with computers ever since."

For years, Muhammad made a living repairing tech gadgets and building websites. Then, in 2017, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for two counts of second-degree murder. His career in IT seemed doomed.

But now, Muhammad is back behind the computer screen. He's teaching other inmates coding languages like HTML and JavaScript.

Muhammad's a peer facilitator for a new coding class at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium-security penitentiary managed by for-profit prison company CoreCivic.

Several prisons throughout the state now offer computer programming courses. Instructors from a nonprofit called Persevere teach the offenders how to code. The organization then matches participants with jobs in the industry upon their release. 

"We're focusing on finding them a job and then watching them succeed later," says Stacey Books, Persevere's program manager. She knows how hard it can be to find employment after incarceration. Books spent three years behind bars before Persevere hired her.

"I know what it's like to be here," Books says. "And I know what it's like to wonder what your future looks like."

Coding, she says, provides a path forward. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the computer and information technology sector to grow 12% by 2028.

"Why not give that opportunity to individuals who may not ever have any other opportunity?" Books wondered.

Participants were selected after a rigorous application process, including multiple interviews and background checks. That's because they'll walk away with much more than a paper certificate, says Michelle Cotter, CoreCivic's director of education.

"We've been able to partner with an employment specialist to see them through," Cotter says. "So, you don't just get your certificate. You get someone to literally hold your hand and help you get a job upon release so you can be self-sufficient." 

The class can take students anywhere between 12 and 18 months to complete, so Cotter says it was important to find inmates close enough to the end of their sentence who could be hired soon after.

Books says she hopes this class gives the participants hope – something she knows all too well can be hard to find in prison. 

"I want them to grow, not only in coding, but in themselves. I want them to find a confidence that maybe they didn't have before," she says. "After this program is over, I want them to succeed."

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.