Meet the Formerly Incarcerated Software Engineers who Built a No-Police Alternative to 911
Our society has been deeply wounded by mass incarceration. The way we will heal is by centering the skills, experiences, and work of those that most intimately know its impacts. That’s why at Emergent Works, all our engineering teams are made up of at least 50% justice-involved software engineers.
Emergent Works (previously Code Cooperative) is a nonprofit software company that trains and employs formerly incarcerated people. Our learning model is unique. We pair formerly incarcerated apprentices with senior software engineers on client projects so that our apprentices learn through paid, real work experience. Our senior software engineers get to do work that they believe in and our clients get exceptional software while knowing they are contributing to a cause that they care about.
After the killing of George Floyd, we felt compelled to use our skills to respond to this critical moment. We asked our engineering team to build a vision for the change that they wanted to see in the world. And they did.
Not911 is a mobile app for resolving community-level issues without police involvement. Not911 allows users to choose from a variety of city, state, federal, and nonprofit agencies to address issues ranging from domestic violence to homelessness, without police intervention.
The team that built Not911 was led by Ross Patton, a 33-year-old software engineer with a graphic design background, and Tomás, 38, who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spent some time away at the Otisville Correctional Facility before finding his way to Justice Through Code, a ten-week coding boot camp at Columbia University.
For Tomás, building Not911 was deeply personal. “Being able to circumvent the police and still get your needs met is a beautiful thing. The first thing that comes to mind is a person on parole. If they were to fall off a bike and need assistance and call an ambulance, the police would come and they could have their parole violated for police contact.”
Ross joined Emergent Works as a senior software engineer earlier this year. “Part of the reason I quit my job was because I didn’t think I was doing any good. I’ve liked my jobs, I’ve liked my teams, I’ve even liked my bosses, but at the end of the day I was always cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t making the world a better place.”
It has been incredibly meaningful for Ross to mentor Tomás. “I haven’t been in jail; I don’t know what that experience is like. But one thing I do relate to is this feeling that the tech industry is really hard to break into, and that the industry is for a certain type of person. There’s value in taking people that have been told that they can’t do this or it’s not for them and actually showing them that anyone can do this. This industry wants you to believe that it’s only for super-geniuses, but it’s really for anybody that wants to do it.”
We fund our work on projects like Not911 with revenue earned through working with clients, like the Brooklyn-based startup Smallhold. Our team at Smallhold was led by Johann Diedrick, a 33-year-old Brooklyn-based software engineer and sound artist.
For Johann, who spent several years as a software engineer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on the Emergent Works team has been an experience like no other. “We’re not just focused on criminal justice reform, we’re also trying to center Black engineers in the process. In my career, with very few exceptions, I have been the only Black engineer in the room. Here, my voice is heard, my opinion matters in a way that it hadn’t previously.”
Antwan, who apprenticed with Johann on Smallhold, is 52. Originally from Baltimore, Antwan spent four years in the Marine Corps and was studying Electrical Engineering when the police came knocking at his door in 2004. He had served time previously for dealing drugs but was now facing 35 years to life in prison for three armed robberies he hadn’t committed. “I took the plea, but now I have violent felonies on my record. Violent crime is looked at very differently.”
Antwan hasn’t been able to find stable employment since he came home in 2009. He fell in love with code earlier this year and was also connected to Emergent Works through the Justice Through Code program. “I’ve always had a technical mind. That’s what’s driving me, that memory of who I was before incarceration.”
We know that the circumstances that led someone to end up in prison do not define who they are and what they can do. And our clients agree. “Emergent Works’ mission-driven, mentorship-based work-model delivered a rare and ideal combination of passion, expertise, and organization, typically a ‘pick two’ problem. The design, documentation, and implementation of our project were professional, on-schedule, and specifically tailored to our needs.” — Ed Bear, Smallhold.
The perspectives, experiences, and voices of formerly incarcerated people are needed in the tech industry. We are all responsible for healing the wounds of mass incarceration. At Emergent Works, we are building a new kind of software company. One that is rooted in these beliefs.
Not911 was built by Tomás, Ross Patton, Johann Diedrick, Ashley Newcomer, Army Armstead, Lauren Wilkinson, Christina Entcheva, and Jaclyn Perrone. It is currently available for download on Android devices and as a web app at http://not911.nyc.
(The Apple App Store has not yet approved the app. If you have an iPhone, you can use the web app at http://not911.nyc)
This piece was written by Trevor Scotland and edited by Alex Qin. Photos by Sara Laufer.