MIT coding course at D.C. jail teaches tech skills to the incarcerated

The last time Rochell Crowder held an office job, he said, it was 1983 and computers were not yet central to everyday life.

But on Thursday, after almost four decades of odd jobs and crimes that landed him in and out of jail, the 57-year-old completed a computer science course taught by PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He stared at the certificate in his hands.

“This,” he said, smiling, “is a step in the right direction.”

Crowder, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery in 2020, was one of 16 men who enrolled in the course while detained at the D.C. jail, as part of a new 12-week program from the Educational Justice Institute at MIT. The program, called Brave Behind Bars, brought computer science education to the facility — adding to the suite of educational services that experts hope will better prepare detainees for reentry. The course, taught twice a week over Zoom, also was offered to women incarcerated in Maine.

“The level of 21st century technology skills they just learned, I can’t do those things,” said Amy Lopez, deputy director of college and career readiness for the D.C. Department of Corrections. “They are transferrable, employable skills.”

She added that it is rare for a jail or prison to provide detainees with an opportunity to use the internet or interact with people held in different states.

The program, which started with a pilot program last summer in New England, teaches basic coding languages like JavaScript and HTML in hopes of opening the door for detainees to one day pursue high-paying jobs. Founders said they are in conversation with local universities and national tech companies about offering college credit or entry-level jobs to future graduates.

Representatives from Microsoft, Howard University and Georgetown University attended Thursday’s graduation ceremony.

The course on its own is not enough to prepare students to compete with experienced coders in the industry. Martin Nisser, a computer science PhD student at MIT and co-founder of the program, said Brave Behind Bars is meant to be a steppingstone for people who may have had little access to technology and will emerge from jail or prison into a world that requires digital savvy.

Crowder, born and raised in D.C., arrived for class the first day not knowing how to save a document — or how to share his screen with a teaching assistant. He described moments when he almost quit, like when he had to rename a file, or when he first saw computer code and it looked like something out of The Matrix.

He was not alone in his experience.

Antonio Hawley, a 19-year-old charged in a fatal shooting during a flag football game on Capitol Hill last year, first took a computer robotics course in eighth grade. Still, he said he sometimes grew frustrated with the material, and at times, it was hard to stay focused on class with his case moving through the court system — his future on the line.

There were about 18 teaching assistants — from MIT, Harvard and other universities, in addition to a graduate from last year’s program — who facilitated breakout rooms and office hours twice a week. On Thursday morning, before the ceremony, they introduced the students to present their final projects.

“It’s an amazing position to be in — to watch new people blossom and grow and come up with their own ideas,” said Linda Dolloff, who participated in the program last year while incarcerated at the Southern Maine Women’s Re-entry Center after being convicted of trying to kill her husband. She has since been released.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui, who helped bring the program to D.C., urged the students to take pride in their accomplishment.

“When you get out there, don’t let the labels get you down,” he told them. “Felon. Convict. No. MIT Scholar. That’s who I am.”

The men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, nodded as he spoke.

Christopher Green said he hadn’t felt this positively about himself since he graduated high school in 2005. The 35-year-old was found guilty of first-degree murder in a 2017 shooting that led to the death of a local swim coach.

Green’s final project was a website that proposed turning RFK Stadium into an “Arts and Learning Complex.” The complex, he said, could provide day care, job training and science and math classes, among other programs, for local families in need.

He said he planned to give his family the certificate so they could frame it.

“I want to show my kids that their father is going above and beyond in trying to come home,” he said, adding “I went from solitary confinement to being in an MIT course. Who would have thought?”

Over Zoom on Thursday, Yashaswini Makaram, a teacher’s assistant, introduced Crowder for his final project presentation.

“He’s very determined and resilient,” she said. “He’s not afraid to ask for help and he takes feedback very well.”

Emily Harburg, another co-founder of the program, appeared on the Zoom.

“Hi Rochell, if you want to share your screen?” she said.

“Perfect,” she replied.

The 57-year-old pulled up a website called Prisoners Anonymous, his proposal for a program that creates a safe space for formerly incarcerated people to share stories, use computers and lean on one another for support.

“I started out with a picture of someone being incarcerated because that’s the lowest you can go … Then we transition to what we would like life to look like,” he said. “But in the process of that, you also need help.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that computers did not exist in 1983. They existed, but were not in widespread use in people’s homes. This version has been updated.

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