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Computer programming training could set former inmates up for success after prison

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly half of all people released from U.S. prisons are back behind bars within five years. But research shows that training programs can help break that cycle and prepare people for successful lives outside of prison. As St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan reports, in a men's prison in Missouri, instructors are trying to turn prisoners into computer programmers.

SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: On a March afternoon, 15 men stand at the front of a cavernous beige room, each wearing a blue satin graduation cap. The mood is jovial as they whip off their caps and toss them in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's hear it for the graduating class of LC 101.

(APPLAUSE)

FARZAN: These men completed a six-month class in computer programming with LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based nonprofit. Thousands of students have taken the course over the years, but this graduating class is very different. All these students are incarcerated at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a men's prison about 30 miles west of St. Louis. Student Avis Haymon has been locked up since 2008. The 42-year-old had never used a computer before taking the class.

AVIS HAYMON: It was always hard blocks and things that I didn't understand. And I had no idea of what to do or how to start it or go back and fix things. Oh, it was a mess.

FARZAN: Some days, Haymon thought about quitting. But every small step - learning how to type, how to navigate new programming languages - gave him the momentum to keep going. Some students have used their coding skills to design apps that address challenges they faced in prison, like how to stay up to date with their kids' schoolwork. For Haymon, who's up for parole in two years, learning how to code has helped him feel more prepared for what may come next.

HAYMON: I don't want to be left behind in society.

FARZAN: Decades of research shows educational programs play a key role in getting people ready for life after prison and can help keep them from returning. An inmate who takes an educational course has about a 40% lower chance of returning to prison. Lois Davis is a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation who specializes in prison education. She says people released from prison often struggle to find work, and technology training helps them compete for jobs that are both in demand and pay better wages.

LOIS DAVIS: When we think about where are the jobs in the future and, ultimately, jobs that allow individuals to earn a living wage, clearly, the tech industry is an important one.

FARZAN: At least eight other states offer computer programming courses in prisons, including California, Tennessee and Michigan. Still, some employers hesitate to hire people with criminal records. And in the fiercely competitive tech industry, it can be difficult for people leaving prison to compete with younger applicants who have been effectively training for these jobs since grade school. But Davis says even if former inmates don't pursue coding jobs, in today's world, embracing technology is essential.

DAVIS: You have to have computer skills whether or not you're applying for a job, whether or not you're applying for benefits.

FARZAN: There's already a small but growing wave of formerly incarcerated people moving into the tech industry. Chris Santillan was released from a Missouri prison in February after nearly 28 years behind bars. He took a programming course in prison and now works at a startup designing learning management systems.

CHRIS SANTILLAN: With everything in my life being brand-new, the one thing that has remained consistent is that I have this job.

FARZAN: Santillan says he's slowly rebuilding his life, a process that can be overwhelming. But he says it's like designing a computer program; you start small and build on it little by little.

SANTILLAN: If I can take it down into simple chunks, that's not as scary because I've already formed these tiny little milestones.

FARZAN: Santillan says all of those pieces are beginning to add up, and soon he hopes to have a whole and productive life. For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWOLLEN MEMBERS SONG, "DARK CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.