Teaching prisoners how to code

Yoomee has been working closely with non-profit Code4000 to help break the cycle of crime by teaching prisoners coding.

Josh (left) with volunteer mentor Ryan (right)

Code4000 is Europe’s first prison coding workshop and is currently running a pilot with 32 prisoners at HMP Humber. The training is intense for the prisoners: nine-to-five, every day.

Five years ago Yoomee started a small in-house experiment to teach young offenders to code, but back then we didn’t have the resources to apply the lessons learned. Now we are working with Code4000 who teach prisoners how to code so they can find tech jobs when they are released.

“There’s a huge demand for coders, a huge shortfall in the UK and the rest of Europe,” said Michael Taylor, CEO of Code4000. “And prisoners have plenty of time, which is one thing you really need to learn how to code! They’ve taken to it with great speed. Some of our coders don’t even have level one maths or English, but they’re building websites within the first six to eight weeks.”

This year, Yoomee has been helping to pilot work placements for prisoners who are allowed travel on day-release to the Yoomee office whilst they serve their sentence in an open prison. We’ve recently taken on Josh, a prisoner, to work as a chatbot developer at the Yoomee office at Park Hill, Sheffield.

Josh is currently serving at HMP Hatfield which is an open prison that allows him to be released on a temporary license (ROTL). This means he can spend the day working at Yoomee rather than in the prison.

How does Code4000 work in prison?

The first phase is a training phase, teaching the prisoners the basics of HTML, CSS and Javascript, before moving onto more advanced concepts like Git, TDD, MVC, databases and full stack development using Ruby on Rails.

Prisoners aren’t allowed direct access to the internet, so they start with exercises downloaded from Code.org before moving onto building simple starter games like Pong, Breakout and Asteroids.

After that, they learn the basics of web development: how to code in both HTML (which covers the layout and structure of web pages) and CSS (which covers the style and design of web pages).

Once they’re ready, the students will enter the second stage: putting their skills to work on real projects for external clients.

The third stage will involve temporary day releases for prisoners so they can go to work with clients independently. The fourth and final step will be to help them find full-time employment as developers in time for their release. And it’s these last two stages that Yoomee has been helping with.

Introducing Josh

Josh learnt Ruby on Rails whilst attending the Code4000 workshop in HMP Humber and his skills are already impressive. He’s now working on real-world projects whilst at Yoomee. Projects include a software upgrade for Off-Axis and an AI-powered chatbot for a local mental health charity Sheffield Flourish.

“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.”

The time needed to support Josh has decreased significantly since he started in the Yoomee office, and he’s now much more able to support himself using online resources such as Stack Overflow.

Yoomee is also very grateful for local tech volunteers such as freelance developer Ryan Brooks. Volunteers like Ryan are essential to help to speed up the onboarding process by committing regular time each week — mentoring and providing advice and insights on career development.

Next steps

The plan is to significantly expand the programme with Code4000 in Sheffield and so Yoomee is looking for volunteers to help mentor the new coders. So, if you also believe that an understanding of code unlocks a life of opportunities and has the power to transform lives please do get in touch with us.

In the meantime, you can find out more by watching Michael’s talk at TEDx Stockholm last month (below).