Can teaching SA prisoners to code reduce the number of repeat offenders?


There are no official statistics on how many inmates in South African prisons are repeat offenders, but various bits of research suggest the number may be as high as 80%. An initiative to reduce the levels of recidivism on our jails which began in the Western Cape has turned to coding as a way of leading formerly and currently incarcerated prisoners away from crime and ending the cycle of poverty and crime in South Africa.

Brothers For All came about through a collaboration between Sihle Tshabalala, an ex-offender who taught himself to code online, London-based IT entrepreneur Robyn Scott and Linda McCourt Scott, who runs HIV/AIDS programmes in local prisons.

The program kicked off in September last year providing training in high value skills including coding, youth leadership, entrepreneurship and crafts, to at-risk youth and ex-offenders  in Western Cape communities.

Brother For All targets people who have slipped through the education and training system who would otherwise have little to no chance of gaining aspirational, well-paying jobs.

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But why specifically choose coding as one of the skills offered and not any other “conventional” route such as plumbing or building?

“We chose coding because it leapfrogs over over the need for more conventional, expensive and time consuming job skills training,” says Tshabalala. “Plus there currently is a high demand in the market for such skilled labour”

Nothing much is required from people to join the program. “As long as a person has a good grasp of English and is motivated, they can learn to code,” Tshabalala adds.

Cellblock coders

Participants are provided with a PC, a high speed LTE connection, specialist supervision and and support tutorials, but most of the learning is done by students through free online training programmes such as General Assemble, Hyperion and Codecademy.

Tshabalala says ex-offenders who don’t know how to use computers often quickly adapt and are helped along the way, all it takes is a sense of determination to learn.

Brothers For All’s next move is to go into prisons and start lessons with current inmates so as to have them equipped with the necessary skills as soon as they are released from prison. Tshabalala and his team recently got the green light to set up shop in all 42 correctional centres in the Western Cape including eight female centres.

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The first prison coding pilot project will begin in April in the Worcester Male and Worcester Female centres, as well as the Helderstroom Male Centre. Fifteen inmates per prison will be trained, thereafter Brothers For All will identify those who show potential and talent and train them to become program trainers so that Brothers For All can extend its reach.

“Female prisoners make up a very small percentage of the prison population, around 2%. There 2 663 female prisoners, compared to 112 467 males in 2014. Most are incarcerated for economic crimes and so we are keen to especially target this group,” Tshabalala says. “It’s a norm in our societies that most girls and women are the ones left to fend and look after their offspring as single mothers. In my community, the unemployment rate exceeds over 60% in a population of 58 000.”

In just five months since Brothers For All was launched, the organisers and participant have already begun to see the fruits of their labour. Six of the current students (two male, four female) have been chosen for the CodeX program in Cape Town.

“We have also secured learnerships for two of our students with Nona Creations and we are working with several other IT companies who have offered internship programmes. The City of Cape Town has committed to helping us with access to premises and jobs as part of their vision of seeing Cape Town developing into an IT hub,” says Tshabalala.

“Part of our model is that anyone who receives training must then give back and help train new recruits. This applies to the coding but also to our other programs which include making recycled paper bead jewellery, which helps generate funds for our operation, and our ‘Playing it Safe’ program which addresses problems in communities such as HIV, teenage pregnancies, gender abuse and substance abuse.”

Victims of crime

In an act of cruel irony, Brothers For All was recently the victim of crime. It lost 16 laptops recently, which were stolen in an armed robbery.

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“On the same day when the nation celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela, we were held at gun point. Five men came to our centre with firearms and robbed us of 16 laptops and seven cellphones,” Tshabalala says.

“It was devastating and a major setback for the organisation to lose a lot of equipment like that. We have not recovered from that experience and students still come to the centre, even though we don’t have enough equipment to accommodate them all. It was an awful experience which left 22 students who where present at the time extremely traumatised but hey, life goes on. For me it was about realizing the impact my past life has had on other people because it was the first time I was robbed as I had always been the one that robs people in the past.”

Now, more than ever, the program needs more equipment and funding to replace the stolen property and expand and Tshabalala says they could use all the help they can get from anyone who wishes to help.

“We just want our laptops back so our students can learn,” said Mzi Duda, one of the Brother For All organisers and an ex-offender himself. “We’d be happy to teach these robbers how to code too if they gave us back our laptops. We understand the problems that they’ve experienced and why they made these bad decisions.”

As disappointing as the incident was, Tshabalala says it hasn’t deterred them from carrying on with their work and they will continually work at establishing Africa’s first coding for prisoners project.

“When I asked myself what Mandela would do, even though I knew he would be angry, I also knew he would take the peaceful route. We must set an example for our community. And our community is sick of the violent and selfish behaviour that keeps us poor,” he concludes.

To find out more about Brothers For All and get involved, check out their website here.

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