Cracking the code on the reintegration of prisoners into the labor market

Social problems

Two major companies have pledged to hire graduates of a prisoner coding program

Inmates learn to code, communicate and connect at Auckland South Correctional Center as part of a program by social enterprise Take2 to facilitate their return to the workforce.

The program teaches prisoners website development and life skills — tools that hope to pave the way for employment in the tech industry after release.

Take2 founder Cameron Smith started the program when he saw the need for training to reduce New Zealand’s relatively high recidivism rates and the huge obstacles placed in the way of prisoners seeking employment after release.

But although he and his team have been behind the training program for two years now, its ability to get prisoners back into the workforce would be crippled without some big tech players playing the ball.

This has taken the form of companies like Spark, Datacom and RUSH offering six-month apprenticeships to Take2 graduates in coding-related roles.

Smith said the first graduate was hired by Datacom about two months ago.

“All feedback has been good so far,” he said.

The apprenticeship program came with an employer-provided playbook showing tech employers how to best prepare their new employee for success as they embark on their first job after prison.

The step-by-step guide was written alongside consultation with industry and community experts, the Department of Corrections, current employment partners, Maori cultural advisers, and current and former Take2 students.

Smith was inspired to set up Take2 to address the systemic challenges faced by prisoners at the end of their sentence, who are often excluded from competing for jobs from the outset due to blanket bans.

“There are general prohibitions, but there can also be personal biases,” Smith said. “We try to work with employers to understand what their concerns are.”

Drawing inspiration from Last Mile, a US-based social enterprise with a similar modus operandi, Smith saw coding as particularly successful, not only because of the need for workers in the sector, but also because of the widely useful skills that he teaches.

“Coding is problem solving and troubleshooting, so there’s an inherent abstract application to the skills they learn,” he said.

Take2 CEO Cameron Smith said the next step for the company is to open a community training center in August, so students can complete their training, even after their release. Photo: Supplied

Then, of course, there is the need for skilled workers in the tech industry.

“Labour shortages don’t just provide opportunities for people in the program,” Smith said. “There’s also a huge amount of human capital sitting in the justice system.”

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Jobs, software developers are currently in high demand, with job vacancies continuing to grow. Meanwhile, roles in web development remain on the list of long-term skills shortages, with the shortage of workers in the sector only exacerbated by the past two years of border closures.

Smith argues that there’s a whole cohort of people out there who could fill gaps like these in the prison system — while giving people a chance to move on with their lives after they’ve served their time.

“For many of our students, taking their first steps into corporate employment can be extremely daunting,” he said. “But despite this, we know how determined and driven they are to create a better future for themselves and their whānau.”

The stigma that inmates face in job interviews is an issue near and dear to Take2’s counselor and development coach, Dr. Paul Wood.

This is because he spent 10 years from the age of 19 in prison for murder. With the ability to access indoor education, he rose through the ranks through bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, and was halfway through his doctorate when he was released.

He said his good results were only possible because of the support he received, such as a company that was willing to take a chance with him once he was released.

“You can’t describe how loyal you are to them,” he said. “You feel so grateful for the opportunity.”

He suggested that in a tech industry where turnover is a big issue, offering someone the chance to re-enter the workforce could create a lifetime loyal worker.

“If the place where I worked hadn’t given me an opportunity, I would never have exploited my potential,” he said. “That’s what’s so valuable. These organizations give people the opportunity to grow and change.

Wood doesn’t put his own positives — now a motivational speaker and community advocate — on the fact that he’s different. It was her father’s support to help her continue her education and the chance to find some hope and aspiration that gave her the confidence to turn things around.

But the system is not set up so that many prisoners come out with these positive results. The reality is perhaps best summed up by recidivism rates.

About 70% of New Zealanders with previous convictions end up with another conviction within two years of being released from prison, while just under half are re-incarcerated two years after their release, according to the Ministry of Justice .

Wood said programs like Take2 can begin the big task of solving this problem by giving more prisoners the lucky chances he had.

“Take2 provides the systemic ingredients needed for people to experience the same results I did,” he said.

Dr Paul Wood said there must be a path back to society for people who have been in prison. Photo: Supplied

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson said with technology’s critical role in the country’s future, it’s important that everyone has the tools to access it.

“While technology has the power to break down barriers, it can also create barriers for those who don’t have the access or skills to use it,” she said. “Take2’s groundbreaking program offers some of our most vulnerable citizens a chance to join Aotearoa’s tech sector and benefit from the significant growth in digital careers that will be experienced in the years to come.”

Meanwhile, Justin Gray, managing director of Datacom New Zealand, said Take2’s mission aligns with Datacom’s desire for greater fairness and inclusion in the technology sector.

“Our team is excited to play a part in providing an opportunity for people who, for various reasons, have spent time in prison, to learn new skills in a rapidly growing industry that has the potential to start a new life and a successful career,” he said.

Michael A. Bynum