They went to prison as criminals and came out as skilled web developers. So how has society been treating them since their release? Michael Andrew talks to graduates from Aotearoa’s first prison coding programme.
Siosaia Maka sat at the 2022 Hi-Tech awards not quite believing where he was. Six months earlier, the father of seven had been serving a three-year and nine-month sentence at the Auckland South Corrections Facility. Now he was sitting in the same room as prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the minister for the digital economy David Clark, and a glittering company of New Zealand tech sector heavyweights and rising stars.
Looking at these people celebrating the country’s most exciting digital innovations and successes, Maka couldn’t help but reflect on the journey that had brought him here. In the six months since his release, the 26-year-old had enrolled in the web development training school, Dev Academy Aotearoa, and graduated as its top student. He’d then been taken on as a paid intern with Rush – the tech studio that built the Covid-19 Tracer App – and been invited to Wellington to attend the Hi-Tech Awards as a company representative along with former CEO Pavan Vyas. There he stayed in a hotel and wore a suit for the first time in his life.
Seldom does someone leave prison and excel so emphatically and swiftly in normal society. But unlike so many others, Maka is not held back by his time in prison. In fact, it was in prison where his remarkable transformation began.
The prison classroom
Just over a year ago, I wrote about a handful of incarcerated men who were involved with Take2, a New Zealand startup that aims to help those going through the prison system create better lives by teaching them valuable web development and life skills. I went to Auckland South Corrections Facility and sat in on a class, where the students enthusiastically demonstrated their coding abilities and their newfound sense of self worth that Take2 had helped foster. Mostly Māori and Pasifika, they were earnest and confident young men, optimistic about their prospects to lead good, prosperous lives once they returned to society with their new skills.
It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever written about, and the programme, at least as far these men’s self-esteem was concerned, appeared to be making a difference. But lingering above it all was one question: how would it actually play out once they were released from prison, into a stigmatic society with a 58% recidivism rate?
Some of these men are now out of prison and at different stages of their reintegration journey. Two, including Siosaia Maka, have already secured well-paying tech positions. I met them at an Auckland cafe with Take2 founder Cameron Smith to hear about their new lives. While the other man in paid employment, who I’m calling David, didn’t want me using his real name, he was happy to share his story.
David was released from prison in the lockdown of September 2021 after nine years and six months inside. He had the equivalent web development skills of a professional one year out of university, yet he’d been away so long he didn’t know how to use a smartphone. When his daughter picked him up and drove him to their home in Hamilton, he was quickly overwhelmed by the intensity and speed of the world around him. “She was only doing 60kph on the motorway but I had to tell her to slow down,” he says.
David now works for Datacom, New Zealand’s largest tech company and one of Take2’s key supporters, earning well above the median New Zealand salary. He works in a team of eight and specialises in backend databases. “Nobody wants to do that work,” he says. “It’s boring, everyone wants to do the front end. But I want to stay put and get really good at this before trying other things. I want to be the man at one thing first, then I’ll move and be the man at everything else.”
Naturally charismatic and funny, he speaks from a place of pride, clearly enraptured with his place in life and the backing of Take2 and Datacom. And yet, despite the support network around him, there have been some major hurdles for him to overcome since his release. In order to be considered for early parole, David submitted a detailed action plan to his parole officers, committing to certain criteria such as enrolling in Dev Academy Aotearoa, keeping to a curfew, wearing an electronic bracelet, and avoiding contact with certain individuals. By the time he completed the 15-week Dev Academy course, his restrictions were lifted because of his good behaviour, and he had multiple companies vying for his skills.
He eventually picked Datacom, electing to work in the Hamilton office to be close to his four children, who still don’t believe him when he says he works in one of the city’s tallest buildings. Not long after starting, however, he encountered his biggest obstacle: finding accommodation.
“It’s very hard to find a house,” he says. “Every place I applied, as soon as I ticked the criminal history box on the application form, that was it.” Despite having a portfolio of stellar references from Datacom, his parole manager, and Cameron Smith of Take2, David’s record immediately disqualified him from renting a place of his own. “It was hard, man. I was probably earning more than those property managers, and they still wouldn’t take me. I had to get other people to apply for me to get a place.”
Confronting such stigma, David was understandably worried about what would happen when he revealed his history to his colleagues. He was under no pressure from Datacom, and deliberately waited several months to tell his story in order to establish relationships with his team and show them who he really was. But because his record prevented him from getting security clearances to work on certain projects, it was only a matter of time before people would start asking questions.
“I had a lot of anxiety leading up to it [telling my colleagues],” he says. “I just thought they would judge me and that it would change our relationships.” But when he finally shared his story he was met with nothing but understanding, respect and kindness. “It brought us closer together,” he says. “Some of them even said the only difference between us was they’d made mistakes in the past but hadn’t gotten caught! They’re all just normal people like me.”
While David was starting at Datacom, Siosaia Maka was still at Dev Academy, where he too was fretting about revealing his history to his fellow students. On the first day of the course, he and his peers were involved in an orientation exercise in which they shared “who they were”. Not wanting to prolong the anxiety, Maka told them straight up about his time in prison, his involvement in Take2 and his desire to use his skills for something good. “I feared the judgement,” he says. “I thought my heart was going to fall out. But I just put it out there on day one.” Initially unsure of the reception, Maka soon had his peers approaching him in private, commending him for his courage.
Arriving at Dev Academy with comparatively advanced skills, he stood head and shoulders above his university-educated peers. Some weeks, he would finish five days worth of work in two, and spend the rest of the time mentoring the other students and helping them finish their work. But it wasn’t just his technical skills that were making him stand out. After class one day, some of the other students were asking each other about their “plan Bs” if a career in web development didn’t materialise. When it came to Maka, he expressed puzzlement at the question. In his mind, entertaining a plan B amounted to entertaining failure – an impossible proposition. “There is no plan B,” he replied. “I’m going to be a developer. That’s the only plan.”
That both Maka and David possess such mastery over their abilities and ambitions is no accident. It’s a deliberate product of Take2’s curriculum and the self-help literature it prescribes as required reading. While in prison, the students read Mindset by Carol Dweck and How to Escape from Prison by Paul Wood – himself a reformed criminal once convicted of murder – and learned ways to eliminate doubt and disbelief from their thought patterns. These techniques were critical to withstand the pessimism within the prison system, and the belief held by many prisoners that all rehabilitation programmes are doomed to fail as soon as the support ends and the participants are sent back to “the jungle” – the brutal outside world where old behaviours are allowed to flourish.
“There’s lots of doubt in prison,” says David. “There’s no hope. The other guys would tell me ‘as soon as you finish [Take2], they’ll forget about you and send you back to the jungle’.”
However, bolstered by the authenticity of Take2, and the constant presence and investment from Cameron Smith and members of the tech industry, the students were able to commit to the work and embrace the belief that they were good men with valuable skills to create better lives for themselves and their families. “I had an end goal,” says David. “And I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.”
Now firmly ensconced in working life, both men have continued to build their reputations and list of achievements. Based at Rush’s office in Parnell, Maka has been paired with the company’s top front-end developer to develop his craft. Not long after the Hi-Tech awards, he and another Take 2 graduate competed in Datacom’s annual hackathon against 300 people across Australia and New Zealand. They created a prototype for a social enterprise called Ngā Mihi, a secure marketplace that would circumnavigate the bureaucracy of the prison system and allow people to send essential items such as socks and underwear to incarcerated family members. The team was awarded the top prize and peoples’ choice award for the solution, and The Warehouse has confirmed it will be partnering with the project to bring it to life.
Meanwhile, alongside his position at Datacom, David has become an unofficial ambassador of Take2. He’s presented his experience of the programme to the commissioner and other senior leaders of New South Wales Corrective Services – which has confirmed it will be commencing a pilot of the Take2 Programme in 2023 – and has been mentoring the next cohort of Take2 students. Travelling up to Auckland, he assesses their commitment to bettering themselves and tries to nurture within them the same sense of self-worth that Cameron Smith instilled in him. “I learnt I was in control of my own mind. But it was all Cam that helped me do it,” he says. “He’s the most consistent person I’ve ever met. Other people just say things and don’t follow through. But Cam did. He exposed us to a lot of people in the tech industry that I’m still in contact with today.”
Scaling the programme
Smith is humble about his contribution to Take2. Despite having created the company, he keeps the focus on the contributions of the industry partners and the drive of the participants. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of what he’s started. “It’s hard to find the words. Proud just doesn’t do it justice,” he says. “I didn’t quite anticipate how close the bonds would be between me and the guys. I have strong friendships with them; we have a mutual respect for each other and our different journeys. Seeing them succeed like this is pretty damn cool. I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life.”
While Smith considers the programme to be a success, albeit on a deliberately small scale, the journey has not been without considerable challenges. Because of quarantine issues surrounding Covid-19, Auckland South Corrections Facility put the programme on hold in August 2021 and has not yet restarted it. When this happened, the Take2 participants were suddenly disconnected from their classes and an important source of inspiration in their lives. “When Covid hit, they had nothing. They were just twiddling their thumbs in prison and I think that was really hard for them. But they’ve grown so much from that; they actually navigated that setback really well.”
While Smith hopes the prison programme can resume eventually, Dev Academy has provided a stopgap by taking on students once they’re paroled to complete their training and bring them to industry standard. There are currently two other Take2 graduates completing the course. “We owe a lot to Dev Academy,” Cam says. “It really helped us out with a solution for these men, effectively refreshing their skills after being idle in the prison for so long. It does such an amazing job as well.”
Because Dev Academy can only take on one or two students at a time, the next step is Take2’s Community Training Hub – an offsite version of the Take2 classroom which will allow the students to receive the entirety of their training outside of prison, preparing them for industry employment.
With David and Maka providing clear evidence of Take2’s viability, the aim will now be to scale the programme and help as many people as possible once they leave the prison system and return to the community. While Smith is aware he won’t be able to provide the same one-on-one impact as Take2 grows, he’s leaving it to David and Maka to impart their wisdom and knowledge to the next cohort of students.
“David and the others want to take on that role with the next generation coming through. That’s really heartening and gives me confidence to know that the lessons and mentoring will continue to be passed on to the new students.
“And it’ll be better than my mentoring. They’ve actually lived the journey.”