Prison program aims to turn criminals into coders

Inmates are now taking classes to learn how to become computer programmers when they get out
Inmates are now taking classes to learn how t... 03:33

One notorious California prison is trying to turn criminals into coders. Inmates are taking classes to learn how to become computer programmers when they get out, CBS News' Omar Villafranca reports.

Computer code may look like gibberish, but for those who write the language of the Internet, coding is well-paid and sought-after work. It is also very tough to learn.

"It's definitely a challenge for me," 41-year old San Quentin State Prison inmate Tim Thompson said.

Thompson has been locked up since 1996, before the Internet radically changed the way most of us live and work.

"I hear the Internet is big out there. You know, I've been in prison awhile, so I never really had a chance to experience the Internet," Thompson said.

But he knows he is writing the language of the future. Thompson was selected with 17 others to be part of this groundbreaking prison class.

"Render is a word that means like take a non-visual representation of the thing and make it visual," teacher Shawn Drost told his class.

Among the blank stares there is the hope of one day becoming a coder who makes $25 an hour.

Shawn Drost was recruited by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Redlitz to design the skill-building program to help reduce California's 61 percent recidivism rate.

Redlitz said he is talking to businesses that are ready to hire these people.

"It's a large-demand industry, and to be very frank," Redlitz said, "if you can write great code, people don't care about anything else."

Inmate Gary Valentino Hollis said not only does he want to do this, he loves doing it.

Hollis' 20-year sentence for attempted murder will end in May. He never thought he would be a computer nerd but would like to make "excellent" money.

More than the 35 cents an hour he's paid to take the six-month, eight-hour-a-day class.

California's Department of Corrections prohibits Internet access inside prison walls, so this coding class pretends to be online. That also means the app inmate Chris Schuhmacher designed exists only on his computer.

"It is an idea for an online life-coaching service that empowers addiction recovery through physical fitness," Schuhmacher said. He had never played with an app before.

"I've been in prison 15 years," he said.

As hard as it is to teach in prison, there are victories.

"I have had several ah-ha moments where I can say 'OK, now I'm on my way,'" Thompson said.

"Almost every week there's epiphanies," Redlitz said. "And most of the guys in here, they've never touched a computer before. They are progressing beyond our expectations."

In the San Quentin classroom, these inmates are treated as employees. Their good work is rewarded.

Tim Thompson was even named employee of the month when 20 years ago he was living what he calls the gang life. Now, he would like to call himself a computer geek.

"I think the other guys out there on the yard would," Thompson said. "I would definitely at one point say, 'I am a true programmer. I'm a true nerd. I'm a true computer geek now.' I would love to have that label."

Thompson and all of his classmates are scheduled to graduate next month with the chance to make it as computer coders.