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From Prisoners To Programmers -- San Quentin Inmates Are Learning How To Code

SAN RAFAEL (CBS SF) -- A very lucky group of inmates at San Quentin are getting a high-tech break. They are learning how to code.

They're getting top-notch instruction in Java Script, HTML and CSS through virtual instruction, essential skills for anyone who wants to succeed in today's job market; extraordinary skills if you are an ex-con.

Eighteen men made the cut. No prior experience with computers was necessary. Students were selected based on their ability and motivation to learn the material.

Christopher Schuhmacher is one of them. On Quora, a Q and A website used by San Quentin inmates, he described it as a chance for him to "regain the technological relevance" that has been passing him by while in prison.

Familiarly called Code 7370, the course was launched this fall by the California Prison Authority and the programming bootcamp gurus at Hack Reactor. If the inmates' experience is anything like the 12-week course they offer kids on the street, it will include live coding, hack/pair programming and the fundamentals of building web apps. They'll come out thinking like a software engineer.

It's all part of San Quentin's on-site learning project called, The Last Mile. Venture capitalists Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti launched it back in 2010 after a visit to speak before the prison's business class. They were inspired by the inmates' desire to learn and discovered that when it comes to computer skills, few programs give inmates knowledge that will lead to real employment on the outside. The pair decided to create the first-ever business incubator to operate behind bars.

Now, inmates in the Last Mile's Technology Entrepreneur Prison Program are learning essentials like technology, social media, business planning and computer proficiency. Each six-month course culminates in a Demo Day, when they have to present their business ideas and product pitches to fellow prisoners and outside investors. The roster of their mentors on the outside reads like a Silicon-Valley who's who list -- Google's Jon Silber, Rocketspace Founder Duncan Logan and Erik Moore of Base Ventures, just to name a few.

Of course, the real test is what happens to the inmates once they are on the outside. For some, who are serving long sentences, a high-tech career remains an elusive dream. For others, like, Schuhmacher, it's a game-changer.

"I'm humbled and inspired to think that by learning this skill, I'll have the opportunity to transcend the stigma of being in prison. I still don't know exactly what the future holds, but I'm moving forward feeling incredibly lucky," he wrote.

In another Quora post, a former inmate, who chose to remain anonymous, offered the inmates encouragement.

"Twenty-three years ago, I was released… now I live a normal life… a good honest living in IT. With a plan you can turn it around. Last I heard there is a 85% recidivism rate for ex-cons. Someone has to be the 15%, right? Why not you guys?"

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