UPDATED 20:00 EDT / DECEMBER 03 2020


Columbia University teaches Python coding to job-seeking ex-prisoners

Each year in the United States, 650,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. Their convictions drastically lower their chances of being hired when they try to enter or reenter the workforce.

A program at Columbia University aims to address this by teaching formerly incarcerated students in-demand programming skills.

When people come home from prison, they’re confronted with the reality that it’s just very difficult to find jobs,” said Aedan Macdonald (pictured), program manager of Justice Through Code at The Center for Justice at Columbia University. “Our mission is to provide a pathway to career-track employment for formerly incarcerated individuals to help support them and their families, and also to begin to change the negative stereotypes that are attached to the formerly incarcerated.” 

The program teaches a version of a course taught to MBA students on the fundamentals of programming in Python. It is adapted for the program’s students to include mentorship from software engineers at top tech companies and a track for real-world skills related to finding work, including interviewing, interpersonal skills and resume writing.

Macdonald spoke with John Furrier, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio, during AWS re:Invent. They discussed the details of Justice Through Code and how Macdonald’s experiences led him to his position as program manager. (* Disclosure below.)

Justice Through Code places graduates at major companies

Mentorship is key to the program since many students lack networks that provide routes to jobs, according to Macdonald. Some students have gone on to junior-level apprenticeships at major companies; others might opt to work with freelance web-development agencies; still other students now work on a project within the Columbia University IT department.

Macdonald spent four years in prison for his involvement in the marijuana trade in California prior to legalization. Despite having founded two businesses, and his acceptance to Columbia, he found he could not secure a landscaping job because of his record.

“There’s just this automatic sense that this person is not to be trusted because they have a history of incarceration,” he said.

Macdonald hopes to scale the program, which has received support from Amazon Web Services Inc. Over 70 million Americans have some sort of police record, according to Macdonald. There is a high unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals, which significantly impacts the economy as a whole. Also, employment is the number one factor in recidivism, according to Macdonald.

“At the end of the day, formerly incarcerated people are brothers, sisters, family members, and really deserve a chance in life,” he concluded. 

Watch the complete video interview below, part of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of AWS re:Invent. (* Disclosure: AWS Partner Network sponsored this segment of theCUBE. Neither AWS nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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