MIT coding course at DC prison teaches incarcerated tech skills

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The last time Rochell Crowder had a desk job, he says, was in 1983 and computers didn’t exist yet.

But on Thursday, after nearly four decades of odd jobs and crimes that saw him in and out of prison, the 57-year-old took a computer course taught by doctoral students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He stared at the certificate in his hands.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he says smiling.

Crowder, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery in 2020, was one of 16 men who signed up for the course while being held in DC prison, as part of a new 12-week program program of the Educational Justice Institute of MIT. The program, called Brave Behind Bars, brought computer training to the establishment – adding to the suite of educational services that experts hope will better prepare inmates for reintegration. The course, delivered twice a week on Zoom, was also offered to incarcerated women in Maine.

“The level of 21st century tech skills that they just got, I can’t do these things,” said Amy Lopez, assistant director of college and career readiness for the DC Department of Corrections. . “These are transferable and employable skills.”

She added that it’s rare for a jail or jail to provide inmates with the ability to use the internet or interact with people held in different states.

The program, which began with a pilot program last summer in New England, teaches basic coding languages ​​like JavaScript and HTML in hopes of opening the door for inmates to one day pursue jobs. well paid. The founders said they were in conversation with local universities and national tech companies to offer college credit or entry-level jobs to future graduates.

Representatives from Microsoft, Howard University and Georgetown University attended Thursday’s graduation ceremony.

The course alone is not enough to prepare students to compete with experienced coders in the industry. Martin Nisser, a computer science doctoral student at MIT and co-founder of the program, said Brave Behind Bars is meant to be a stepping stone for people who may have little access to technology and who will be released from prison or prison in a world that requires digital savvy.

Crowder, born and raised in DC, came to class on day one not knowing how to save a document — or how to share his screen with a teaching assistant. He described times when he almost gave up, like when he had to rename a file, or when he first saw computer code and it looked like something out of The Matrix.

He was not alone in his experience.

Antonio Hawley, a 19-year-old charged with a fatal shooting during a flag football game on Capitol Hill last year, first took a computer robotics course in eighth grade. Still, he said he sometimes got frustrated with the material, and sometimes it was hard to stay focused on the class with his case moving through the court system — his future at stake.

There were about 18 teaching assistants – from MIT, Harvard and other universities, in addition to a graduate of the program last year – who facilitated breakout rooms and office hours twice a week. On Thursday morning, before the ceremony, they introduced the students to present their final projects.

“It’s an amazing position to watch new people flourish and grow and come up with their own ideas,” said Linda Dolloff, who participated in the program last year while incarcerated at Southern Maine Women’s Re- entry Center after being sentenced. to try to kill her husband. She has since been released.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui, who helped establish the program in DC, urged students to be proud of their achievement.

“When you go out, don’t let the labels get you down,” he told them. “Criminal. Convicted. No. MIT Scholar. That’s who I am.

The men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, nodded as he spoke.

Christopher Green said he hadn’t felt positively about it since graduating from high school in 2005. The 35-year-old was convicted of first-degree murder during a shooting in 2017 that resulted in the death of a local swim coach.

Green’s final project was a website that proposed to turn RFK Stadium into an “arts and learning complex.” The complex, he said, could provide child care, vocational training and science and math classes, among other programs, for local families in need.

He said he planned to give the certificate to his family so they could frame it.

“I want to show my kids that their dad is going above and beyond trying to come home,” he said, adding “I went from solitary confinement to an MIT course. Who would have think?”

On Zoom Thursday, Yashaswini Makaram, a teacher’s assistant, introduced Crowder for his final project presentation.

“He’s very determined and resilient,” she said. “He’s not afraid to ask for help and he takes feedback very well.”

Emily Harburg, another co-founder of the program, appeared on Zoom.

“Hi Rochell, would you like to share your screen?” she says.

“Perfect,” she replied.

The 57-year-old started a website called Prisoners Anonymous, his program proposal that creates a safe space for formerly incarcerated people to share stories, use computers and lean on each other for support .

“I started with a picture of someone incarcerated because that’s the lowest it can be… Then we move on to what we’d like life to be like,” he said. “But in this process you also need help.”

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