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Cracking the Code to Success: How one nonprofit is changing the purpose of prison

persevere
Posted at 4:05 PM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-23 16:05:22-04

TENNESSEE — In the United States, there is a problem waiting to be solved: millions of available tech jobs, and millions of felons who find it tough to land employment when they get out of prison. Experts say solving it, would not only give those incarcerated a second chance but would also increase public safety and save taxpayer money by preventing them from going back to prison.

A nonprofit is working on a solution, and in just two years, they're already seeing results where inmates are cracking the code to success.

Life in prison is disciplined and controlled. There are certain rules, inmates wear identical outfits and they follow strict schedules. But inmates say what’s harder than living in this confined space, away from society, is leaving it.

At the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, about an hour outside Memphis, those outcomes are changing.

William Fischer has been incarcerated for three years on drug possession charges.

“I know how difficult it is for people getting out to get back on their feet, pick up where they left off, pick up the pieces, you know, and it's tough, you know, not having a skill set background, a criminal background," Fischer said. “My name is William Fischer, self-motivated determined. I am going to be something of great importance.”

Fischer’s attitude has changed since he was first locked up. He lost all hope of turning his life around.

“I lost my whole support system, you know, I mean," Fischer said.

But then, he found Persevere, a nonprofit organization that is seeking to end mass incarceration, provide hope, skills, and opportunities to people often impacted by generational poverty and criminal involvement.

Sean Hosman is the founder of this organization. Through Persevere, inmates are learning to code, developing the skills they need to get jobs in the technology industry when they’re released.

“Technology has created an entirely new ecosystem of opportunity. It can be taught quickly. You can pick up skills quickly and you can do anything with it. You can be, you know, coding, you can be doing testing, you can build mobile apps. You can go into robotics, you can go build websites. You can go do deep data, machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence," Hosman said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says in 2019, there were nearly 1.5 million software developer jobs, projected to grow 22% in the next ten years. That’s where Hosman and his team saw a void they could fill.

“And so we started looking at the number of software developers that were needed in the country, the number of people that could become software developers, where it would change their lives. And we saw a direct match," Hosman said.

Persevere is funded by donations and grants, so the Tennessee Department of Correction was able to partner with them without spending any taxpayer dollars. They then transformed part of the West Tennessee State Penitentiary into a prime learning environment.

Stacey Books is now the organization's regional director but both she and Hosman were once part of the system.

“You know, one of the rules that we have in our class is when you were in here, you were not in prison, you were at a job and you were learning how to how to code software. So, we really try to change that mindset from the day that they first walk in here," Books said. “You made a mistake once in life, but that does not determine what you can do with your future. And if I can do what I'm doing, then those women and men can do absolutely anything they want to do.”

“You know, I became an alcoholic and a drug addict….and between the dates of about August 2010 and about July of 2012, I went to jail 12 times, was arrested repeatedly," Hosman recalled.

It wasn’t long ago that she was sitting alongside these prisoners.

“And so a lot of the wardens that are here at Henning were my wardens there. And so it was fantastic to be able to implement a program and to give back to the men and women that I was incarcerated with or even met soon after," Books said.

Seeing former inmates come back in a positive light isn’t the norm. Tennessee Department of Corrections released more than 5,000 people in the fiscal year of 2020-2021. Their recidivism rate, or rate of returning to prison, is 36.3%. Nationally, the U.S. releases more than 7 million people from jail and more than 600,000 from prison each year. Within three years of their release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again.

“Persevere has a 2.5% recidivism rate, and it does take several years to be able to see what that actual rate is going to be. But as of now, since April of 2019, that is where we're sitting," Books said.

People like Bobby Stout are trying to prevent themselves from going back to prison once they get out.

“I've done enough destruction up there in society. I want to make up for it by going out there and doing as much positive as I can," Stout said. “I done construction my whole life and I wasn't looking forward to going back out there and doing construction. So this is something to look forward to because, you know, guys get caught in a slump and here it's dark place and dark times and it does a lot for your morale. You know, have something to look forward to.”

He is trying to break the stigma of what someone who has been incarcerated can do.

“You know, people have a big misconception that everybody just these evil, bad people in here and there's some really good, genuine people in prison," Stout said.

He’s preparing to be part of perseveres 100% job placement, alongside the more than 200 students across the program in Tennessee, Arizona, and South Carolina.

“I’m trying to make a positive change in my life and persevere is a big part of it," Stout said.

April Buckner works with the Tennessee Department of Correction. She says preparing inmates for success outside prison helps communities.

“What we have to understand is 97% of these individuals will be coming out into the community and we would much rather have them qualified and skilled and have the resources in order for them to transition and be successful versus not providing anything for them at all," Buckner said. "That we're creating a safer Tennessee, that we're creating individuals who are going to come out and be an asset to their community versus a liability.”

Rebecca Trammell, the interim dean for the college of health and applied sciences at MSU Denver, has spent years doing research in prisons. She's seen the benefit of programs like this on communities firsthand.

“Who do you want sitting next to you on the bus? The violent predator that went in actually got, you know, very detailed programming to help him or her get over whatever it is that helped them get to prison or the person that went in, sat in their cell all day, did nothing, join the gang, got some tattoos and learned how to fight?" Trammel said. "From a financial perspective, it is not sustainable to have two million-plus people in prisons in the United States. Depending on the state, it cost between $40,000 to $69,000 a year per inmate per for, you know, per state.”

These men and women now see the benefit Persevere can have to both themselves and society.

“And they give me the support that I needed to build my own self-determination level back of my wittiness or my ability to continue to believe in myself," Fischer said.

“Well, it gives me, it gives me hope. It's not easy. It's you've got to apply yourself. But it means a lot to me," Stout said.

There is a real opportunity for a brighter future and the program inside the prison is just the beginning. Nestled within a Memphis neighborhood lies a house that’s much more than a home. It's filled with people unrelated by blood but considered family and they all have something in common. Each one of them has spent time behind bars.

They didn't want to go back to their old lives once they were released. Instead, Demarcus Williams and Jimmy Henry found themselves at Persevere’s first transition home.

“I tried to go rob a place and I failed. I didn't get away with it," Williams said. “I was incarcerated for five years, seven months and eleven days.”

“I sold drugs forever, you know? So that's all I did my whole life," Henry said.

“I'll say persevere becomes your family. It’s more than just helping us coming out of prison. It’s helping us to live our lives, helping us better each other, helping us find what we have, what we need. What we can do is teach us," Williams said.

The second they leave prison, the support is there.

“I have a staff member that literally picks them up from prison, puts them in a car, buys them whatever meal they want for the day. And then if they go back to our transition home, then we take them shopping to make sure that they have all the necessities that they need," Books said.

Henry says if it wasn't for their support, the coding certifications he earned in prison, and this roof over his head, there is no telling what would have happened to him when he got out.

“I was just lost in prison. I was just going to get out and sell drugs again," Henry said. "But they didn't give up on me, you know, they made come back.

When the time comes, Williams and Henry will move out and get their own place, having chosen to remain roommates, and others in the Persevere program will take their place. James Bauers is one of them. He has been locked up for nearly five years and had nowhere to go when he got out.

“Because, you know, I don't have a home. Nothing, no clothes, and the clothes on my back from prison are what I'm going to have when I get out, but Persevere will come pick me up," Bauers said.

What he does have is a passion for coding; a new purpose and a path to success.

“Yeah, it's just like, you know, conquering the world, you know? I mean, because I'm actually doing something that a lot of people don't know how to do and have no clue how to do it. And I’m one of the ones that can say I know how to do now," Bauers said.

The Prison Policy Initiative shows people who have been to prison experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public and those who have been incarcerated more than once have rates 13 times higher. That’s why this transition home is crucial; it's tough to address health problems, have a stable job, or focus on learning new skills without a place to call home.

“This isn't a leg up. This isn't a handout. This is saying here's a better, you know, potential for you," Hosman said.

It's a better potential for a more positive outcome in all areas of life.

“And but I have a little 4-year-old boy as well. And he's in foster care right now, you know, so hopefully when I reunite with him, when he turns 18, you know, he'll I'll have something to leave him, you know, and maybe even teach him," Bauers said.

And that’s another one of Persevere’s missions: to help the families of these inmates and stop the cycle of generational incarceration.

McKinley Mayweather is just one kid directly impacted.

“My dad, he’s trying the best he can to make up for the past, and I'm trying to give him a chance," McKinley Mayweather said.

Her dad, Charles Mayweather, has spent more than half of her life locked up and now he’s getting his second chance.

“I got to be this father figure had never been before. I didn't know what to do. Where to start? And I had to start somewhere in an right now got introduced, persevere, and that was start," Charles Mayweather said.

And, he’s not doing it alone.

“And so I tried it out at first and I started liking it and I started helping me out," McKinley Mayweather said.

“So, I talked about second chances for those who are already on the inside. But let's talk about first chances for the children. Right," Hosman said.

The two-generational approach within Persevere was designed for families like the Mayweathers. McKinley and other kids like her are learning right alongside their parents both while the parents are inside the prison and when they get out.

To qualify for the 2-gen coding program, the child must be between the ages of 10 and 18. The parent has to be currently or formerly incarcerated, have a GED or the equivalent, and they can’t have had major infractions in the last year.

“And so, we work with the families because not only do we want to change the behavior pattern of that individual while incarcerated, but we also want to change that behavior pattern of them while they're on probation and parole and the behavior of their children because their children are more likely to become incarcerated than what that parent was," Books said.

“I know prison means you've done something wrong and like there's a lot of bad stuff in prison," McKinley Mayweather said.

Kids like McKinley Mayweather may not want to go to prison, but sometimes, it’s inevitable unless habits are changed.

The National Institute for Justice says children of incarcerated parents are on average 6 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. But this father-daughter duo is already creating a new foundation to prevent that.

“We just never had that bond before and the bond that we have now, and I love it," Charles Mayweather said.

Allen Farmer is the youth coordinator with Persevere. He works directly with the children involved in 2 gen.

“And of course we want to teach them, we want to teach them life skills. But number one, they got to know that we care," Farmer said.

This approach is what makes the program different.

“Any connection that we can keep between inmates and their family is good," Trammel said.

“It kind of means a lot to me. It’s rewarding to see that this can be the beginning of a solution or this can be the beginning of what we call no entry," Farmer said.

No entry, begins and ends with a strong support system. Both individually and within communities that are greatly affected.

“So if, if they're falling off track, we're still there to support. If they're doing great, we're still there to support," Farmer said.

“But when you have whole communities in which a big chunk of their of people are going to prison, that's going to affect their kids," Trammel said.

It’s something that’s changed Charles and McKinley Mayweather’s lives and relationship.

“It makes me want to keep trying to be like a lot better than him because, like, I can learn from his mistakes," McKinley Mayweather said.

As a father, Charles Mayweather is working hard to show he’s changing.

“I know that I have to do this to prove to myself, not just to her, but to myself, that I can do this and I can be better than what I was," Charles Mayweather said.

"It makes me feel like I know he's always going to be there and he knows I know he's not going to give up," McKinley Mayweather said.

They aren’t taking this second chance for granted.

“I'm very proud of you for what you've done. I'm going to continue to be proud of you, make me proud every day, every day, every minute," Charles Mayweather said.

“And I'm very grateful that you tried to change your life," McKinley Mayweather said.

They are using it to change the outcome.

Other families like the Mayweathers have been reconnected because of this program. Alex Marston knows all too well what it's like to work on a fresh foundation for your family.

“Hi, I'm Alex Marston. I am a software engineer by trade and a piano player by heart. And I'm finally in my new place here in Shelbyville. And Persevere is one of the reasons that I've made it here," Marston said.

Marston is one of Persevere’s first graduates.

“I watched him go from being incarcerated to me being on the work release program to being my very first resident at the transition home, my very first employee with Banyan Labs and my very first graduate that was able to get his children back," Books said.

He discovered the prison computer lab while it was under construction and that allowed him to live out his family dream while still incarcerated.

“I went in there and one of the teachers was in there and I was like, 'Look, I've been wanting to code since I was little, tried to follow my dad's footsteps, is all right if I sit down at one of the computers?' The teacher said, 'Yeah.' He didn’t care, so I sat down and I kind of took off from there. I just, I couldn't stop. I was, I was in there working on the stuff as they were setting it up," Marston said.

Marston says coding changed his relationship with his father.

“I was understanding some of the stuff that he would say back to me, relevant or relevant to coding. And we had this open community. We had this new way to communicate between you, between each other," Marston said.

And now he’s using it to build a future with his sons, Aiden, Phoenix and Dayken, who don’t define their father by prison.

Marston's kids are 11, 10 and 6 years old. More than half of their lives have been spent away from him, but now this new home is barely 30 minutes away.

“I'll be able to get them more like not just during the weekends, we'll be able to go out and hang out and go to the arcade and stuff like that," Marston said.

Marston is just one success story. He’s the beginning for Persevere.

“So, we are growing the program with at-risk populations, even with the youth populations in everywhere that we are," Hosman said.

This is all about giving people a second chance. A chance to reunite with their kids. A chance for a successful career. A chance to be viewed as something much more than a felon.

“It's because of that persistence and that perseverance. So, you want to keep on and you want to keep on looking ahead," Marston said.

Our special "Cracking the Code to Success" explores how prisons across the country are teaching inmates to code and landing jobs within that field. We take a deeper look at how these skills change their lives outside of prison, how they can prevent generational incarceration and how they can impact an industry that needs more coders.