We’re teaching women in prison to code

Students and instructors at our first-ever coding class in a women’s prison in December 2017.

Last month, Girl Develop It taught the first ever coding classes for women in prison in Delaware. We couldn’t be more excited to launch this new program, aimed at providing opportunities for incarcerated women to gain skills, confidence while they’re in prison, and access to a supportive community when they re-enter society.

One major hurdle we faced in planning for this program was that there is no Internet access inside Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle, Delaware. Working with our awesome team and dedicated instructors, we were able to adapt the curriculum for our Intro to Web Concepts, Intro to HTML and CSS and Intro to WordPress classes so that no internet access was needed.

With some creativity, over the course of three weeks in December, we were able to introduce 12 students to web development and helped them get their first taste of building websites.

Of those 12 students, we had nine inmates enrolled in the class, who were learning side-by-side with three correctional officers. We learned on the first day of class that some of our students haven’t accessed the internet in over a decade.

“Last time I was online, the big thing was MySpace,” one student said in the opening introductions in our first class. Melissa hadn’t accessed the Internet in over ten years, but she was eager to learn about coding and building her first website. “I’m interested in the business side of culinary, and want to build a website to showcase my future restaurant.”

In the introductions — which is how every Girl Develop It class begins — students shared their aspirations for learning to code and why they had signed up to take the class.

Christine was inspired by her mom, a bartender-turned-entrepreneur; and she wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Before coming to Baylor, Barbara, a former nurse in her 60s, had the opportunity to be trained on computer systems at the hospital where she worked many years ago, and said she felt fairly comfortable learning new technologies. But she too hasn’t been on the Internet in decades. She’s being released soon, and joined the program in hopes of “adding some new skills to [her] tool belt” and broaden the job opportunities available to her upon release.

One of the correctional officers enrolled in the class wanted to build a website to advertise her side project: a booming catering business that she hopes to continue to grow as she nears retirement. Another correctional officer — whose son is a cybersecurity expert based in the UK — was hoping to just get more familiar with ever-changing technology and be able to understand it better.

Kai is an artist who wanted to learn more about coding to see how he can apply his skills to a potential career in graphic design.

Others, including Tia and Jackie, were hoping to broaden their horizons, and learn something new that would challenge them and allow them to show what they have to offer.

Before this program, the current educational and vocational offerings at the prison were limited. Programs included ServSafe, a training and certification designed to teach inmates on food service skills and safety, which could lead to jobs in food handling and management. Other programs included a GED program and traffic flagger training, and the opportunity to earn college course credit on a criminal justice class taught by a visiting professor of nearby University of Delaware.

Through five nights of three-hour classes, we introduced the students at Baylor to basics of the Web, how to write HTML and CSS and build their first site using WordPress. We were excited to learn quite a bit from this pilot program, including lessons about how teaching inside a prison differs from our core classes that are taught in communities across the US — from Boston to Fargo to Los Angeles.

Aside from the logistical hurdles that we worked through leading up to the launch, one takeaway is that we were ambitious with the amount of material we taught in the period of time we had with the students. By the end of class, students had learned the basics of web concepts, were better versed in imperative terminology to speak to web development and had created their very first website — an exciting moment for students.

Instructors and TAs supporting students at the computer lab at Baylor.

One student, Julie, also the computer lab assistant, demonstrated her creativity and what she had learned by building a website for her imaginary private eye agency. She showed off her newfound skills by creating a multi-page WordPress site complete with a contact form to request her fictitious services.

Barbara worked on building out a website dedicated to her passion for gardening, something we later found out was a hobby she cultivated while incarcerated.

Other websites built included a blog-style site by a student, Chelsea, devoted to second chances, reflecting on what she will do once released, vowing to not take anything for granted, knowing she does not want to return to incarceration.

A few other students, extending their passion for the culinary arts, created websites dedicated to their imaginative restaurants, complete with original menu items and recipes.

A few other students opted to go a more whimsical route, creating sites for fictitious pets and cute animals.

Students supporting each other

Another interesting thing we found (and loved) was that, unlike our typical classes, all the students already knew each other, which created a fun camaraderie in the class from the very beginning. In all our classes, students end up supporting and encouraging each other, but it was really nice to see the correctional officers sharing tips and getting help from inmates and vice versa from day one.

Based on a post-class survey, 100% of the students in the class said they felt more confident in their skills after the class, and would be interested in continuing to take classes.

So what’s next? Our next step is to take all of our learnings from the class and see how we can grow and expand the program at Baylor (including bringing in more students) with adapted curriculum, and then find opportunities to expand beyond Baylor and Delaware.

Why we’re teaching incarcerated women

At Girl Develop It, we believe in including people who have been left out of technology education. Teaching incarcerated women is fully aligned with our mission to provide accessible and judgment-free opportunities for diverse women from all backgrounds interested in learning web and software development. And in fact, it’s been on our radar at Girl Develop It for some time.

In 2014, we were approached by a program based out of Vermont, about the opportunity to partner on an inmate mentorship initiative, which is when we really got excited about the idea.

At that time, however, Girl Develop It didn’t have full-time staff or infrastructure to support additional programming outside of our core chapter community-based classes in chapters across our then-30 chapters. As the organization has grown and expanded — we’re now in 58 cities across the US, have six full-time staff and hundreds of dedicated chapter leaders and instructors supporting classes in their communities — we’ve been able to see our core program reach sustainability, and have continued success and impact.

It’s an exciting time for us to be able to pilot a new program to reach women who have been too-often overlooked and who are desperately underserved. We’re looking forward to tracking students over time who continue in our expansion of the program to see how their lives are impacted when they are released from prison and return to society and join their local Girl Develop It community.

Among women prisoners, research shows that the rates of recidivism are high. Our goal is to support the students who return to society by welcoming them into our nearby communities to help them continue their learning and to get involved in a network they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. For our Baylor students, we have nearby chapters in Wilmington, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and we’re working with our partners to find ways to continue supporting the inmates when they’re release by offering them scholarships to any GDI classes they want to take to continue learning.

We believe that empowering women through teaching them technical skills, by helping them unlock their own potential, and by showing them that we exist and are here to support them will not only impact the individuals, but will go on to impact their families and their communities. Because of our reach across the country, we have the potential to scale this program seamlessly in dozens of states.

To grow this program, we also need support. This program would never have been able to happen without the support of our awesome sponsors, Capital One and Barclaycard. They were our first champions and have supported our efforts throughout the entire pilot planning process. We can’t wait to expand the program with their support, and welcome additional supporters to reach out to learn more about getting involved.

We owe so much gratitude to everyone who helped make this pilot program a reality, including the Director of Education at Baylor, Dr. Dwight BoNey, as well as the rest of the staff at Baylor; our awesome instructors, Lisa Yoder (Intro to Web Concepts and Intro to HTML & CSS) and Tracy Levesque (Intro to WordPress; the volunteer TAs who spent upwards of 20 hours supporting students in the busy weeks before the holidays: Alexandra Lash, Candace Worthen, Elizabeth Cottrell, Ebonie Butler, and Shanise Barona; our team at GDI including LeeAnn Kinney, who led the program and Shanise, who supported throughout; O’Reilly Media who donated books for the students to continue their self-study; and again, our amazing sponsors, Jenn Walters-Michalec and Capital One, and Jocelyn Stewart and Barclaycard. Thank you!

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About Girl Develop It

Girl Develop It is a national 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides affordable and judgment-free opportunities for adult women interested in learning web and software development through accessible in-person programs. Through welcoming, low-cost classes, GDI helps women of diverse backgrounds achieve their technology goals and build confidence in their careers and their everyday lives.

Since the organization’s founding in 2010, Girl Develop It has led the learn to code movement, providing women with avenues to participate in the technology industry today. Now in 55+ cities across the US, GDI currently supports 98,000 students with technical skills and community support, and empowers more than 1,600 students per month.

Contact us and get involved:

Press inquiries: press @ girldevelopit.com

Interested in supporting this program? Reach out to sponsorships @ girldevelopit.com

Do you work with inmates or a prison? Reach out to partnerships @ girldevelopit.com

Girl Develop It | GDI

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Through classes, projects, and events, GDI students develop code, confidence, and community. https://www.girldevelopit.com/

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