Reflections on 2019 from HMP Holme House
Stephen Allen is the Classroom Instructor at the Code4000 Academy at HMP Holme House and, with years of prison experience, a huge technical skillset, and a strong interest in computer programming, he is the perfect fit for the role! He's been on-board at the coding academy since it opened last year and has been a key-factor in the provision there going from strength-to-strength. He has wrote a series of articles for the Code4000 blog about his work at Holme House and published below is the first of these, a reflection on 2019.
As 2019 comes to a close, the Code4000 Academy at HMP Holme House reaches the end of its first year. Setting-up a new workshop in a prison is a sizeable undertaking ; add to that the rules and regulations around the use of the IT infrastructure and equipment required to making a coding workshop work and you have a challenging mix leading to many stress headaches and sleepless nights!
A year later though, and all that is a distant memory and I look out of my office window at the dozen coders in my workshop all busying through the sizeable quantity of learning material we have made available to them. This is the result of a very successful year and, of course, a successful 18 months prior to us getting it up and running in the first place!
It’s eerily calm compared to a typical prison workshop, even a typical prison education classroom doesn’t have this level of focus or dedication from all its learners. This is largely down to the support provided by the folks at Code4000. Prisoners can get promised all sorts in their time on the inside but many of these promises fall through or are forgotten about for a variety of reasons and it can leave them very sceptical of new ventures like ours.
When I induct a new prisoner to the workshop, I start off by stressing that this is like no other workshop they’ll have experienced. We’re linked to Code4000 who provide learning material, volunteers and who are ever present during their time in the workshop. They’re a non-profit company and their funding comes from their successes, so you put the effort in and make the most of what we’re offering and once released the folks at Code4000 will support you to further your education and / or find work in the tech sector.
This is the key difference. In any other prison workshop once a prisoner gets released that’s the end of our association with them. All these skills, certificates or qualifications they have can mean very little when tied to the stigma attached to having a criminal record. Code4000 however have already built relationships with local tech companies and education providers. The tech sector is uniquely open to people from any background, they’re not interested in your past – just whether or not you can do the job they’re offering.
Any scepticism a new coder might still have soon vanishes once they arrive in the workshop and meet the other coders. Soon they’ll meet the Code4000 team: Shauna, Jim, Rod and possibly even Michael if he’s in the country on one of his many visits to refresh and update the software that is vital to the workshop’s success! It doesn’t take long before they start imagining what their life could be like once released, all the new opportunities that will be open to them.
My coders are all at different levels, we purposely stagger recruitment to achieve this and it encourages peer support, all but the newest recruit will find they are able to offer some support to their neighbour and this helps to build relationships and team bonds. Each and every frustration experienced by a new coder has been experienced by his peers and they learn that failure and frustration is part of the learning experience, particularly when it comes to coding! As I like to remind them: “In the beginning you’ll spend 10% of your time writing code, and 90% of your time trying to figure out why it doesn’t work!”