Code 4000 gives Yorkshire prisoners the skills for a 21st century career

skills, Startup stories, Topics

Martin BryantMartin Bryant, September 27, 2017

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

One important role of the prison system is to prepare inmates for their return to the outside world. And if you want to turn your life around in the 21st century, learning to code is a good place to start. Code 4000 is a new initiative in East Yorkshire helping prisoners do just that.

When Michael Taylor heard about an initiative in the USA called The Last Mile, he wondered if he could reproduce it in his home country of Sweden. The Last Mile teaches inmates to code, and it seemed strange that Europe had nothing similar. But it was in the UK, not Sweden, where Taylor found an appetite for his idea.

Bolstered by his experience in setting up the Stockholm arm of kids’ coding club Coder Dojo, Taylor was invited to trial Code 4000 at HMP Humber, near Hull.

The prison service works at a much slower pace than the tech industry, so it took several months to get started. But at the end of July, the first inmates started learning to code.

How it works

Code 4000 begins with HTML, CSS and JavaScript so participants can build simple websites. In time, they move on to working with databases, and frameworks like Ruby on Rails so they can create web apps.

Once they’re up to speed, inmates work on real projects for paying clients. Fees from this work are used to make the programme self-sustaining – none of it goes in prisoners’ pockets. And if they want to learn other coding languages over time, the programme will support that.

Taylor says he’s amazed at how quickly inmates have picked up coding. Only one participant has any coding experience (he knew some PHP), but they’ve all embraced the programme. After they finish the course for the day (it’s a full-time thing), they take books to their cells so they can learn more in the evening.

Code 4000 began with just nine students, and it’s scaling up slowly to reach the capacity of 32 by early next year. “If we took a ‘big bang’ approach there would be no group dynamic,” says Taylor. “Adding more people over time means students can mentor newcomers.”

The slow pace of change in prisons is still a challenge. In late August, Code 4000 was still waiting for an internet connection to be installed in the classroom. Prisoners will never be allowed to go online, but facilitators can benefit from being able to download training assets, and volunteer mentors from the industry will be able to call in via video.

Input, output

While vocational skills are a big part of Code 4000, Taylor says the process of learning to code can help inmates with the problem-solving and lateral thinking needed to get by in prison. And conversely, the life skills they’ve picked up in prison can help them with coding.

“Coding is about problem solving. Being a prisoner requires ingenious thinking to make the most of limited resources. Prisoners are adept at problem solving and bring that into the coding world.”

Taylor says he’s had interest from other prisons around the UK but he doesn’t want to expand the programme too quickly. Right now he’s focused on making sure it works in HMP Humber.

Once they’re free, Code 4000 participants have a role model to look to. Duane Jackson went from being a convicted drug smuggler to a tech entrepreneur with a $30 million exit. But even if they don’t quite they match that, they’ll be armed with skills to carve out a successful career in tech.