San Quentin inmates celebrate graduating tech program, grand opening of new tech center

The grand opening of a new tech center was held at San Quentin State Prison on Friday following a graduation ceremony for roughly two dozen inmates.

The inmates graduated from Code. 7370, a technology training program that teaches computer coding skills to inmates to help them become more employable after they leave. Inmates said the program has helped them find hope that was once lost.

“When I walk into the classroom every morning I forget I’m in a prison,” John Levin, a software engineer inmate, said. “You can’t put a value on that.”

Jason Jones, another graduate of the program, is set to be released in September. Since joining Code. 7370, Jones has learned the skills necessary to develop his own app called GPA, or Getting Parents’ Attention. The app is intended to help student athletes succeed in the classroom as well as the playing field. 

“I didn’t even know what coding was before I got into this program,” Jones said. “I left the streets before smartphones were a thing. I’ve been in prison 13 years now.”

Jones described walking across the stage to receive his diploma like cashing in the biggest paycheck of his life.

An alumni of the program, Harry Hemphill, is now employed by The Last Mile Works while he serves the remainder of his sentence. The Last Mile Works is a joint venture program that provides inmates an opportunity to work on real, client-driven projects while earning a wage of $16.49 an hour.

“We’re actually creating websites and apps for different companies and we earn the highest hourly wage in the U.S. prison system,” Hemphill said. 

The graduation ceremony was followed by the grand opening of the Darshan Singh Tech Center. Named after the Vice Chair of the Prison Industry Board, the facility houses three new classrooms and 84 new spaces for student inmates. The space is much needed for the highly competitive program, which currently has a waiting list, according to Charles Pattillo, General Manager of the California Prison Industry Authority.

“If you want to employ someone who is the hardest worker there that shows up early, goes home last, it’s someone that is coming out of this program,” Pattillo said. “It doesn’t matter what they’re here. What matters is that they have a willingness to get out of prison.”

Many representatives from tech companies across Silicon Valley were on hand to network with the inmates in the coding program. There are already a handful of success stories, including Aly Tamboura. Tamboura is a former inmate and Code. 7370 graduate who now works for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in Palo Alto. Inmates said seeing success stories encourages them to return to help other inmates once they are released.

“When I parole from prison, I hope to be hired by a company in the Silicon Valley area for a couple years,” Hemphill said. “Then it is my desire to start my own web development company and actually hire men from this program in the future.”

Code. 7370 has been a success story since its inception in 2014. Not a single graduate has come back into prison after their release.