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A coding class at XXX. Credit: Unloop.
A robotics class at Washington Corrections Center for Women. Credit: Unloop.

In the U.S., about two-thirds of all prison inmates will get arrested again within three years of their release, and a main reason for that is a lack of job prospects.

A Seattle-based startup called Unloop is working to change that.

Founded by David Almeida, who works in business strategy at Microsoft, and EnergySavvy Senior Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson, the company runs the equivalent of coding bootcamps in jails to help inmates get on the path to employment in the tech industry upon their release. Unloop is a volunteer-led nonprofit with six board members and an instructor, but no formal employees.

Unloop is working on both sides — with prisons and tech companies — to build a bridge between two worlds that don’t often cross paths.

“It’s not just enough to teach people how to code, there has to be an industry and community on the other side that is receptive to that,” Almeida said at the Seattle Interactive Conference Tuesday. “This is a great opportunity for us as an industry to live up to a value we talk a lot about: meritocracy and how it doesn’t matter who you are, or what you look like, or what your past is like. If you can do the job, if you can code well, there’s an opportunity, there’s a place for you in our community.”

David Almeida
David Almeida

The company kicked off its first cohort in June, teaching 15 inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor how to do full stack JavaScript web development. The program, which is funded by Tacoma Community College, focuses on inmates with seven years or less on their sentences and includes professional training that students could put to use if they land a job in the industry after being released.

Almeida said Unloop’s program is coming to two prisons, both at Monroe Correctional Complex, early next year, and the organization is starting a new program in Seattle for students recently released from jail as part of the TechHire initiative.

Unloop’s broader goal is to do its part to rewrite wrongs it sees in the criminal justice system, which Almeida says disproportionately targets the nation’s most vulnerable people and communities.

Almeida called mass incarceration a “defining human rights issue of our time.” Once people are processed through the system, he said, they are released with very little to no help to rebuild their lives on the outside. Unloop wants to fill that void.

“Justice doesn’t look like throwing somebody behind bars, forgetting about them and then waiting for them to get out and commit another crime because that creates another victim in our community, that creates another family potentially torn apart, and that creates a huge financial cost for all of us as taxpayers,” Almeida said. “What justice looks like is giving somebody the basic building blocks of a stable life and watching them flourish.”

Lindsey Wilson
Lindsey Wilson

The idea for Unloop came after Almeida in February 2015 visited Clallam Bay Corrections Center out on the Olympic Peninsula, home of an innovative computer science and engineering educational program for inmates run by Peninsula College.

There he witnessed inmates building filing systems from scratch, developing 3D games and many other things he never would have imagined. These inmates were teaching themselves how to code by checking out books, because there is no internet access in prison, and going back to their cells and absorbing everything.

Unloop isn’t the only organization that sees a potential for people with records to find success in the tech industry. A similar approach is being taken in Portland, Ore.

As the proliferation of coding boot camps shows, it doesn’t take a college degree to get a job in tech. Some of the biggest tech companies are desperate for qualified candidates, and are going all out to hire and retain them.

This need for qualified people, combined with the ideal of the tech industry as a meritocracy gives Almeida faith that these kinds of programs can work. Almeida said many of these inmates possess exactly the kind of entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed in the business, they’ve just never had a positive outlet for it.

“I’m constantly impressed by the potential of people who are incarcerated in the United States,” Almeida said. “Constantly impressed by the tenacity of the students, their desire to learn and constantly impressed by how willing they are to take risks emotionally, digging into content that generally they see as not for them, diving into helping each other and diving into really hard problems in a really hard environment to learn in.”

The next step is getting more prominent players in the tech industry on board.

Representatives from a couple tech companies — EnergySavvy, Substantial and Fuse IQ — are already on Unloop’s advisory board, and the company is looking for more partners to help build a strong pipeline for people fresh out of jail to get into the tech industry. The company wants to work with companies, and their hiring managers, to find the best ways to make hiring people with records possible.

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