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Reimagining pathways for returning citizens with Jason Jones, Deepti Rohatgi, and Aly Tamboura

Devin Coldewey
·7-min read
Illustration of three clenched fists

People returning from a period of incarceration face innumerable challenges, among them entering a high-tech workforce that requires a new set of skills. Jason Jones leads remote instruction at The Last Mile, a code training program for inmates; Deepti Rohatgi is head of Slack for Good, a social-good office within the company running Next Chapter, which helps place recently incarcerated find employment at tech partners; Aly Tamboura advises the new $350 million (and counting) Justice Accelerator Fund at the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. These three, whose stories are intertwined, discussed the possibility for change and how to effect it within the context of tech and returning citizens.

On the shift in attitudes that makes it possible

Not many years ago the idea of in-facility tech training and mentoring might not even have been a possibility. But the increasingly visible shortcomings and flaws of the justice system have made it clear how much such programs are needed.

Tamboura: When we think of mass incarceration, as a whole, the nation is really starting to get it, is saying this was a failed experiment, it's not working, our communities are no safer, we have all these people in prison.

And a lot of Departments of Corrections across across the United States, they're not equipped to get people ready to come home and to thrive. They really weren't set up for that. So when you think of the role of tech in this, when you ask what has changed, a lot of Department of Corrections, have changed that mantra, a lot of Governors, to change that mantra, and projects, like The Last Mile and Next Chapter, these public-private partnerships are showing states what is possible, if we all collaborate and and put our heads together. (Timestamp: 5:36)

On tailoring the lesson to the learner

Teaching people serving prison terms means catering to their strengths and expectations, just like teaching any other group. In this case it also means wearing away the dehumanization and stigma that comes with spending years in a cell.

Jones: From the very first time that they come in, we really try to embed this culture, to humanize them, right? I think when it starts with the language, we don't call none of our learners inmates convicts parolees or anything like that, because the narratives that have been attached to those to those labels have always been negative and dehumanized.

Then we challenge them in healthy ways and try to relate a lot of their lived experience to the coding concepts. For example, this week, I just did a lesson about scoping. And I related into like, how their cells or their living quarters is set up in - like the scope that they live in, only them or their celly have access to that, to what's in the cell, as opposed to like the global scope where the day room or yard everyone has access to. So just finding these ways where you can relate the lived experience of the current situation, or current condition to some of these coding concepts that's a little bit abstract and new for someone learning technology.

(Timestamp: 8:08)

On getting people close to the work

Showing future coworkers and stakeholders about the real nature of the justice and incarcerative systems firsthand helps break down barriers. Silicon Valley may be famously progressive but even so people have internalized decades of misinformation about how things actually work.

Rohatgi: Most people in tech have no exposure to people who have been impacted by a criminal justice system, even though there are over 2 million people who are incarcerated. We need to first make sure the company has shifted their culture to make sure that the apprentices and future software engineers can thrive... so they don't use terms like felon or ex-con, right? And frankly, people need to understand why this country has gotten into the place it is with our criminal justice system. So there's a lot of education that happens within the companies.

For us, it's involved taking over 200 Slack employees to San Quentin, to help shift their perceptions of what somebody who is incarcerated is capable of, explaining to them all the obstacles that you have to go through once you are released, right? Just really getting an education on this issue that nobody has, or very few people within the tech community have exposure to... Then we've seen massive shifts from fear to love. (Timestamp: 10:01)

On getting system-impacted people a place at the table

Of course it's advised to ask people who have been in prison for their input on programs that may affect others there, but how often are such returned citizens given positions of weight at 9-figure funds? Yet as Tamboura explains it's exactly what's needed.

Tamboura: You know, CZI is a baby. It's a new organization. And when our team got involved with this work, it just it took off like a rocket ship. And it's time for it's time for us to, like, graduate from grade school and move into college with this fund.

This is one of the few times in history where a fund I think it is the only time in history where a fund has been advised by someone — and I mean a fund this significant as this — advised by people who are system impacted. There's this old mantra people that are closest to the problems are closest to solutions. And I really believe that people who have been through the system people or are system impacted, really need to not only have a seat at the table, but have a compelling voice in this work. (Timestamp: 13:29)

On spreading the word

The prison system is notoriously fractured, with regulations and opportunities varying wildly between different facilities and states. It takes research, clout, and direct work with the people in charge to move the ball — but when it hits, it can change a lot of lives. Programs like The Last Mile are just part of a broader effort.

Jones: We have a sort of like a franchise model when we go into expanding into any state. For instance, Ali with CZI, they helped with us expanding to Oklahoma, helped with the funding. It was a partnership. And when we launched, it was, at the time, the highest incarcerated state for women in the world. And I remember one of our board members, MC Hammer, talking to Governor Stitt and raising that statistic. In a matter of months, they did the biggest commutation still to this day. It was like 500 people got commuted, and a lot of our learners was part of that commutation, and got out. (Timestamp: 17:08)

On proving the impossible possible

Inertia is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in any social movement, and part of that is the assumption that if it could be done, someone would have already done it; no one has done it, so it can't be done.

Rohatgi: One thing that's really important is proving the model. If Slack can do it, why can't Zoom, Square, or Dropbox? It turns out, they can. And if Zoom, Square, and Dropbox can do it, why can't other companies, right? So the idea that it's impossible, you can't say that anymore. You can't say it's not possible to do it — you can, and for very big, not massive, but for big tech companies. So I feel like the impossibility of making the significant change and making systemic change within the tech sector seems completely doable to me. (Timestamp: 22:37)

Watch the full session below:

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