Last December, Girl Develop It, the national movement to teach women web and software development, piloted a program to bring coding classes to inmates of the Baylor Correctional Institution through a program funded by Capital One and Barclaycard. For the Delaware inmates it was a chance to connect to the future.
From the outside the facility is inconspicuous, though it has a Facebook page and a friendly, green-and-tan color scheme, the prison’s optics belie its purpose. Inmates in the state’s only correctional facility for women are awaiting trial, or sentencing; opportunities to try out new career paths while incarcerated, especially in the tech field, seem almost impossible.
Girl Develop It typically offers sequential classes, starting with Introduction to Web Concepts, which build on previous skills and guide participants toward the creation of a website. For the inmates, however, “we needed to bring [the curriculum] way, way back,” Levesque explains. Instructors used a lot of screenshots to illustrate web basics; the students quickly caught on.
The inmates’ lack of internet access — a formidable barrier — did not deter them.
“Not only did we not have Internet, we did not know what to expect technologically going in,” says Tracy Levesque, a longtime instructor for Girl Develop It Philadelphia who runs the web design shop Yikes Inc., based in Fishtown.
As an alternative, Girl Develop It set up some software on the computers in Baylor’s lab (it wasn’t too antiquated, Levesque says), and the instructors used their personal laptops to run the web locally. Beyond the limitations of the physical space, a few students — there were 12 total, including three correctional officers — had never used the web; a couple more had never seen a phone with a screen, Levesque says.
Before the next class kicks off at Baylor, likely sometime in the spring, Girl Develop It plans to rework the course material. But overall, “the students did amazingly well,” Levesque says. “They made really great websites and there was a lot of peer-to-peer helping.”
Unlike in a standard class, where students start out as strangers, the inmates at Baylor already shared a camaraderie that fueled their success.
The websites they created were a reflection of their aspirations — opening small businesses or pursuing an artistic passion — and a return to life beyond the confines of Baylor.
“A lot of the themes were about second chances and everyone was focused on taking advantage of the learning,” Levesque says. “No one took it for granted.”