Off Axis

JaRool
JaRool
Apr 17 · 5 min read

Yesterday, three years to the day since I was arrested, my first piece of client work went live at offaxisnetwork.com; three and a bit months before I am to be released from prison.

The backstory

On 22 May 2017 I was sentenced to four years and four months in prison. After a couple of weeks in HMP Hull, I was transferred to HMP Humber for the foreseeable future. Shortly after arriving at Humber I enrolled on an ‘iMedia’ course; a basic Adobe suite course identical to part of the GCSE ICT course I had completed ten years before.

HMP Humber’s ’N wing’, my old house is 3rd from the end on the right, 2–49

After about six weeks of boredom in ‘iMedia’, I saw a poster about a new workshop that was to start in the prison; ‘Code 4000’. I knew immediately that I was going to sign up, having enjoyed making websites and online content during my early teens using PHP, HTML and CSS. I started in Code 4000 on 2 August 2017 and I got stuck right in. I was thrilled to be doing something in prison which I genuinely enjoyed and relished my time there.

Late December 2017 I was recategorised as a category D prisoner, meaning I could move to an open prison. Despite being very good news for any prisoner and their loved ones, I was concerned that I would end up back in a menial prison job and was reluctant to leave behind coding and my beloved Javascript. However, I have always been a proactive person and knew I would find a place of employment outside of the prison, as category D prisoners of the right criteria are able to do.

Just before Christmas we had some visitors to the workshop, volunteers from the HMPPS Digital Studio in Sheffield. As I was destined for open prison in Doncaster, I asked our visitors if they knew of any agencies in South Yorkshire who might be willing to give an opportunity to a serving prisoner. One of the volunteers, Shaun, told me that he had seen a social media post from an agency about working with young offenders, and that he would pass the details to my workshop manager. By February 2018, Andy Mayer from Yoomee Digital in Sheffield had offered me the chance to work with him as a volunteer, to continue learning and hopefully progress on to commercial projects.

Unfortunately, everything in prison moves at a snail’s pace, and even though I moved to HMP Hatfield (the promised land of open prison) on 2 March, I wasn’t able to join Andy until 1 October 2018. Even more unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do any coding in this in-between period.

After a conversation with Andy, I started learning Ruby on Rails (while I was in the prison workshop, Rails wasn’t working on the machines, but now is). I started by following the ‘Getting Started with Rails’ tutorial to make a blog application and built on this by installing and implementing various gems (a sort of ready made add-on), I then built a couple of other ‘mini apps’ using the same formula. Shortly later Andy decided I might be ready to start a real client project…

The brief

To upgrade an old Rails 3 application to Rails 5. I was to rebuild the application in Rails 5, but exclude obsolete features and code. This involved rebuilding the database, models, views, controllers and methods in a new Rails 5 application, using the original site’s HTML (after a tricky HAML to ERB conversion) and CSS for the front end prettiness.

Once the backend is done, I would need to import the old data from a MySQL database to a new PostgreSQL database. Deploy to Heroku staging (with CircleCI testing along the way) before moving up the pipeline to production.

How it went

I was in a fortunate position with this project, as there was no deadline to deliver it by, which meant I could take my time while learning on the job. Having a prototype with mostly working code meant I had somewhere I could look if I was struggling on writing something myself. Andy was very supportive as a boss and would volunteer his time to help me whenever I needed (which naturally got less and less as I learnt) and I have a mentor (big up Ryan Brooks!) who is a Rails whizz, and comes in once a week to help me with anything and everything; he also introduced me to RSpec to write tests for the project.

I started the project on 7 November and was able to deliver by 15 February, with some minor tweaks made just before yesterday’s go live.


So we’re now: 36 months after my arrest. 23 months after sentencing. 20 months since joining Code 4000. 6 months after starting at Yoomee. 3 months until release.

And I am absolutely buzzing with the progress and the opportunities that others have granted me and I have seized. I can’t thank everyone enough because none of this would have happened how it has without any of the key players from Code 4000, Yoomee and the wider community who have been engaging with the scheme. And also without my own personal support network which has been relentless throughout this journey. Big ups to everyone involved! Keep up the good work, it’s paying off.

Bigger things to come.

JaRool

Written by

JaRool

Serving prisoner working in the community as a software developer.