Clallam Bay Corrections Center, a maximum security prison on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, is worlds away from Seattle’s bustling high-tech and startup scene.
Yet, an innovative educational program introduced last fall at the prison could connect these two disparate worlds around a very valuable asset: software developers.
Working in conjunction with Peninsula College extension, the prison established a computer science and engineering program nine months ago which teaches inmates everything from 3-D game mechanics to Android development. Now, in its third quarter, the one-year certificate program includes 45 college credits towards cloud and mobile game design, one of the only programs of its kind in the country. About 50 inmates have enrolled in at least one class since the program was started last fall, with wait lists of inmates trying to get in.
“The inspiration for this is that inmates have lots and lots of time, and not all of them are appropriate for welding programs,” said Brian Walsh, education director for Peninsula College and Clallam Bay Corrections Center. “We have some very sharp and very smart inmates who can become good software developers, and they have the time to practice it and learn it.”
None of the inmates, some of whom are in prison for theft, assault, drugs and other crimes, have “graduated” from the program yet so it is unclear whether this experiment will actually work.
But the shortage of computer science engineers and coders, coupled with the some of Washington state’s well documented educational bottlenecks (See: The state of education: Yes, we suck), make the program interesting to say the least. Given the criminal backgrounds, Walsh is realistic that the newly-acquired skills may not pave a way to a job at Microsoft.
However, he said, the inmates could find work at smaller companies that are willing to take a bet on someone whose “skills outweigh their convictions.” Some of the inmates at Clallam Bay are serving life prison terms, so Walsh said that they target students who have seven years or less on their sentences.
“That way, their skills are still fresh when they get out,” he says.
Of course, operating a computer science course in a prison presents some interesting challenges. For one, because of prison regulations, there is no Internet access. They also must screen out certain sex offenders, and those who are forbidden from accessing computers.
Ray Pulsipher, a self-trained computer scientist who teaches the inmates in morning and afternoon classes, said that there’s a real hunger among many of the prisoners to learn new skills that they can apply to their post prison life. There really wasn’t a model for teaching computer science in prisons when he and Walsh started formulating the concept. So, to get started, Pulsipher talked to the educators at DigiPen, the highly-regarded game design school in Redmond that’s known for providing hands-on training.
“We are evolving still, but, I think, if we had an inspiration for our current model, it would probably be DigiPen,” said Pulsipher.
Some inmates at the prison are particularly interested in learning gaming engines, with Walsh noting that some prisoners take stacks of books back to their cells and just “devour them.”
“That’s an extreme example of somebody who says: ‘I just want to learn this because I know I have six years before I get out and I don’t want to do what I did before,'” Walsh says, adding that other students are just learning basic HTML. “In community colleges, we often struggle with students doing their homework, and Ray has not had a problem (here) with students getting their work done and doing their homework and coming to class.”
Walsh is currently pursuing a grant to expand the program, and he’s looking to form stronger bonds with the startup and tech communities in King and Pierce counties, where most of the prisoners return after their sentences are completed.
The program is certainly resonating with some inmates, who’ve gone so far as to name their in-prison game studio: Con-ware Games.
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