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May 11, 2022updated 12 May 2022 9:20am

How digital skills can help ex-offenders stay out of prison

Equipping ex-offenders with digital skills can help reduce reoffending rates while ease the digital skills crisis.

By Sophia Waterfield

When Amaul Islam left prison, he swore he would never go back. But he knew that, without opportunities to work, there was a chance that he might.

Now, Islam is working as a developer and client relations executive at a web design agency, thanks to Code4000, a social enterprise that provides digital skills training to prisoners and prison leavers. “I’ve never felt better in my life,” he says.

Islam’s example shows how the technology sector offers ex-offenders an opportunity to join the workforce, reducing the risk of reoffending. And as employers grapple with a dire shortage of digital skills, it is an opportunity for them, too.

A handful of technology companies and social enterprises are focused on helping prison leavers get ready for the digital workforce. Ex-offenders have very specific requirements, however, and organisations must be prepared to tailor their training to the needs of each individual.

Recruiting ex-offenders: close up programmer student man hand typing on keyboard at computer desktop to input code language into software for study bug and defect of system in classroom , development of technology concept
Recruiting ex-offenders from social enterprise initiatives could help close the gap in skills shortage in the tech and digital industry. (Photo by: Chainarong Prasertthai/iStock)

The case for equipping ex-offenders with digital skills

Just two in ten prison leavers are able to find work in the first year of their release, according to research by LinkedIn and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Within six weeks of release, unemployment rates are as high as 89%, only improving to 44% a year later. 

This is due in part to the issues that prison leavers face when they attempt to re-enter the workforce, explains Zack Fortag, co-founder of social enterprise Inside Out. “We have [ex-offenders] that applied for between 200 and 300 jobs and they got rejected when it went to [criminal record check] stage”.

Digital poverty – a lack of access to the internet or the skills to use it – is an added hindrance to ex-offenders finding work. According to a study by HM Inspectorate of Probation, 47% of young offenders do not have access to the internet.

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This limits their ability to find jobs, which increases the chance of reoffending, says Elizabeth Anderson, the chief operating officer at Digital Poverty Alliance, especially former prisoners in the 18-25 age bracket. “We believe that by tackling digital poverty among this cohort we can help people get back on their feet and move forwards”.

Meanwhile, the UK and countries around the world are suffering a dire shortage in digital skills. A report published today by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, found that tech jobs are booming in the UK, but employers are struggling to fill them.

It stands to reason, then, that equipping prisoners and prison leavers with digital skills could benefit individuals, employers, and society alike.

How Code400 helps prison leavers join the digital workforce

In 2010, US entrepreneur Chris Redlitz was invited to speak at San Quentin State Prison, and was impressed by the inmates' business knowledge and desire to learn. Redlitz founded The Last Mile, a tech accelerator located inside the prison.

Redlitz's example inspired Michael Taylor, founder of UK charity Code4000. The organisation aims to prepare prisoners for employment in the tech sector and reduce reoffending rates, by providing inmates with digital skills training. It works with prisons HMP Humber, HMP Holme House and HMP Wandsworth. It is supported by employees of organisations such as FTI Consulting, the Cabinet Office, Spark Insight, Summit and Lookback.

After a student has completed their training, Code400 supports them in returning into the community, ensuring they can access either employment, education or further training. None of its 18 graduates have reoffended.

Fat Beehive, a UK-based web design agency for the charity sector, has taken two graduates from Code4000, providing them with on-the-job training to become developers. CEO Mark Watson explains that the graduates had very limited experience in a typical digital working experience. "You're supporting people who have never worked in an office at all," he says.

As a result, their training has to be carefully tailored to their needs. "People are going to come with those different life experiences and different ways of learning and I think as an organisation you've got to do what's best for them," he explains. "Everybody's got a different back story so you need to make sure that they're well supported."

Amaul Islam, one of the Code4000 graduates now working at Fat Beehive, is a client relations executive and developer. He told Tech Monitor that the initiative has changed his life. He was first assessed when he was serving in prison by Code4000 and was helped to attend a course to learn HTML and CSS. The organisation then found him a course with Code Your Future, which helped him study JavaScript and MySQL.

Once he had finished his course, Code4000 helped Islam find a role with Fat Beehive, who, he says, have been "completely understanding of how difficult it is" to get a role. "My employer [is] absolutely amazing and he's continuously supported and guided me as well."

Islam believes that without this opportunity, there was a chance he could have reoffended. "After being released I told myself that I'm never going back; that's not a life that I wanted for myself," he explains. "But at the end of the day maybe if I hadn't had these opportunities and I would have given up and maybe I would have actually gone down that route again just purely because I would have nothing else left."

Intel and LinkedIn join the effort to boost ex-offenders' digital skills

A handful of tech giants have also joined the effort. In March 2022, for example, the Digital Poverty Alliance partnered with chipmaker Intel to launch a proof-of-concept initiative to help young men being released from prison gain digital skills and access.

Known as the 'Tech4PrisonLeavers' programme, men aged between 18 and 25 from HMP and Young Offenders Institution at Brinsford Prison, Wolverhampton, are being provided with devices, connectivity, skills and mentoring by Trailblazers Mentoring. To support the pilot, Intel granted $150,000 (£121,661) in sponsorship.

In the first year after leaving prison, ex-offenders will be evaluated by the Institute for Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton. Using the findings, the Digital Poverty Alliance will publish a whitepaper to be shared with government, demonstrating the impact of addressing digital poverty on reoffending rates. The Alliance hopes to scale the proof-of-concept to a wider pilot or rollout.

Trailblazers says that by using its "intensive weekly mentoring support" three to six months prior to leaving prison and continued 12 months post-release support, reoffending rate could fall to 8% within one year of release and 10% within two years. The national rate for reoffending is 25.7% for the first year of release for male offenders.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn, the professional social network owned by Microsoft, has given its support to a project by Inside Out, in which a group of prison leavers aged 18 to 27 set up the UK's first clothing brand created by young ex-offenders.

As well as sponsorship, LinkedIn provided access to training and mentorship in areas such as event management and PR, as well as guidance on how to use the site itself for business networking - a skill that few young people have, says Fortag.

The Inside Out project has enabled the current roster of ex-offenders to apply for other jobs, with one candidate interviewing at a luxury fashion retailer. Fortag knows this wouldn’t have been possible without the initiative. “This project gives them a real structure and something to do rather than hanging around in the streets,” he explains. “This has given them a real opportunity.”

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