Why Priscilla Chan wants to turn inmates into coders

Priscilla Chan wants to teach inmates to code

Priscilla Chan wants to turn inmates into coders. The founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes it's not only possible, but that tech companies would be willing to hire felons.

Chan took "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell inside a prison in McLoud, Oklahoma – a state that's been called the prison capital of the world because of its incarceration rates – where she is helping create opportunities for female inmates with an innovative computer-coding program.

"I was just talking to a woman in the classroom and she's been incarcerated for 17 years and she is ready to return to her community and wants to contribute. And she knows that the industry and the world has moved forward. And we need to be giving people who are incarcerated the cutting-edge skills,' Chan said. 

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Priscilla Chan CBS News

Chan is helping to bring those cutting-edge skills to 18 women at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the largest female prison in Oklahoma with over 1,200 inmates – 85 percent of whom are mothers. Through the Last Mile Program, women will learn computer coding languages like HTML and JavaScript – without internet access.
 
"It's phenomenal what they're able to achieve … But I think it just speaks to how dedicated they are to actually learning the skills," Chan said.

She believes tech companies will be open to hiring felons who are motivated and have the right skills. Chan realized technology could help unlock opportunities for others when she and her husband visited The Last Mile's coding program at San Quentin prison in 2015.
 
 "Seventy percent of individuals who are incarcerated will come back. But if you give vocational training, it goes down to 30 percent … in the Last Mile program, it is zero percent," Chan said.  
 
Inside the Oklahoma prison, we met Toc'quianna Culver, who dropped out of school at age 13, had her first child at 15 and was in prison by the age of 34. In the 12 years she has spent behind bars, she's gotten her GED and is now a college senior majoring in business. She said she holds a 3.9 GPA and is about two-and-a-half years from freedom. Culver is determined to not make the same mistake that got her put in prison.

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Toc'quianna Culver   CBS News

"Literally, wrong place, wrong time, wrong people. I was separated from my husband, was going through some things, and I got involved with another guy that was not the right type of guy … drugs, drinking, and I was at a place where I shouldn't have been with him, and someone ended up dying. And thank God, it wasn't by my hands, but I was still there," said Culver, who was convicted of second degree murder. "I want people to know that it's time to stop defining each individual with the mistakes that they make … Because if you are taught better, you do better and a mistake does not make you a monster. We are worth redemption. And, we can be redeemed. We can redeem ourselves."
 
If Culver graduates, she will join the nearly 500 inmates across four states who have completed the yearlong course to become software engineers.

"There are so many jobs that need to be filled today and so I think there's an incredible appetite for people with the right training to do the right job … One in two individuals have a family member or someone in their lives that is involved in our prison system," Chan said.

To those who argue that someone who has been convicted of second-degree murder doesn't deserve a second chance, Chan would say, "I think we have to be aware that all those women in the classroom and everyone who leaves prison has served their time."

"Each one of those women is a mother, is a family member and, as Bryan Stevenson says, more than the worst thing that they've ever done."