Tina Tiller

The prisoners learning the world’s most valuable skill

Ten inmates at a high security South Auckland prison are being equipped with skills that court lucrative roles in tech companies all over the world. But do they actually have a chance at being employed once released? Michael Andrew went along to the class to find out.

A man sits at a computer typing in a foreign language. He types deftly, confidently, each sequence of random characters appearing on the black window in a different pastel colour, like a birthday card written by a child with a crayon set. As he types, there’s movement on a web page on a second monitor; its colour and font changing.

After a few moments, the man stops typing, leaves the cursor blinking at its position after the final typed word – <div class=”div3”> – and turns to me.

“At first glance it looks complicated,” he says, gesturing at the screen. “But they break it down to make it really easy to understand. We started learning by playing Minecraft. But now the latest language I’m learning is React.”

Soft-spoken and pleasant, he smiles as he speaks, evidently enjoying explaining the pleasures of web development to a complete layman. “It’s quite advanced. But all it takes is persistence and discipline, and when you see it come to life on this other screen, it’s like a moment of euphoria, or a drug. A healthy one though. And then you think, ‘what else can I do?’ And you go and do more research.”

Around the room are other men working at computers; on the walls are posters with mind maps and diagrams espousing values like teamwork, self-worth, community, manaakitanga.

Take2 Students (Photo: Michael Andrew)

It’s almost as though we are sitting in the office of a particularly progressive tech company somewhere in downtown Auckland, and he’s telling me about what he does for a job. But we aren’t. We’re sitting in a classroom in the middle of the Serco-run Auckland South Corrections Facility, where the man is serving a two year sentence for aggravated robbery.

If the crime sounds jarring, it’s supposed to. Violent thieves are not people we readily forgive in New Zealand. But in Take2, the programme teaching a small group of prisoners how to code, reidentify themselves and improve their lives, the misdeeds of the past do not define who someone is today.

Nearing the end of a 12-month pilot, Take2 has proved to be enormously successful, having taught the students intermediate web and app development through a handful of programming languages. It also boasts the highest engagement rate and lowest absenteeism of any of the prison’s programmes.

“We’re not buying into the stigma of ‘once a prisoner always a prisoner,’’’ says Cameron Smith, Take2’s founder and CEO. “The worst thing is to have these guys going back to the outside world without any skills or any opportunity. What we’re doing is providing them hope. It’s about allowing them to improve their quality of life.”

Kohuora Auckland South Corrections Facility (Photo: Supplied)

Broken system

New Zealand has one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the OECD, with a reoffending rate of 50%. Māori represent over 50% of the prison population, despite only making up 15% of the overall New Zealand population.

Smith started Take2 in an attempt to find a new tool to fix the broken system. Having worked in impact investment and recruitment, he had witnessed the permanent stain a conviction can have on someone’s job prospects, and the influence the stigma has on their reoffending.

“Some individuals may have made a mistake two years ago or even five years ago, and they had served their time according to our justice system,” he says. “But we as a society are actually serving a second sentence to these individuals, which is often lifelong for them. This impacts their families and contributes to cycles of crime.”

A few years ago, after being diagnosed with an serious autoimmune disease and ending up in hospital, Smith began reevaluating his own purpose and decided he would devote his energy to the area of society he felt needed it most.

He left his full-time job to take a deep dive into the world of prisoner rehabilitation and came across The Last Mile, the US programme where incarcerated people are taught coding and other critical skills, and are then employed by tech companies like Slack and Adobe upon release. The programme has successfully returned 313 citizens back into society and boasts a 0% recidivism rate among its graduates. Smith began liaising with the programme directors, travelled to the US to observe the programme, and came back with a model on which to base New Zealand’s version.

Cameron Smith (Photo: Supplied)

After approaching Serco with his idea, Smith was told it would be considered if he managed to find enough funding and external support. So he did. After engaging NZTE and private investors – including NBR Rich Lister Andrew Bagnall – and forming an advisory board through his old networks, he raised the $220k seed funding that would allow him to go back to Serco with a business case.

Francois Meyer, the prison’s assistant director of rehabilitation and reintegration, told The Spinoff he receives all kinds of pitches for new programmes, few of which come to fruition. He suspected it would be the same when Smith first approached him. “The system is not easy,” says Meyer. “It takes a long time to adapt. I thought I wouldn’t see Cam again. But he has a drive and vision that has been spectacular. He came back after three months with all this funding and I said, ‘let’s do it’.

Employer participation

In order to prove that the programme was viable, Smith had to leverage advice from a range of different stakeholders and experts to craft a holistic curriculum, one that would prepare the students for lasting reintegration and potential employment in the tech sector.

But the most important step was finding companies to commit to hiring prisoners who completed the programme, which, according to Smith, was relatively easy.

One of Take2’s earliest business partners was Rush, the design and technology studio behind the government’s Covid-19 tracer app. Rush CEO Pavan Vyas says he supported Take2 as it would allow people from different backgrounds to enter the rapidly-growing tech sector, which was already facing a severe worker shortage and lack of diversity. The company is setting up an internship programme which will see Take2 students working for Rush as part of their reintegration into the workforce.

“We know some of these people are highly creative and highly intelligent, and yet they’ve made some really poor decisions early in life.

“So how does business nurture them and take the bold steps and employ some of these people to reintegrate them back into society?”

Vyas, who is now an independent Take2 director, is fully aware of the stigma that former offenders face, and how it can be a barrier to employment. However, he said much of what the general public knows about the prison system comes from the media and films, which typically peddle simplistic and biased portrayals.

“It’s human nature to be apprehensive about things we don’t understand. But it’s about actually opening the doors and understanding and sending the message out to employees and employers that knowledge and talent and capability exists at all levels.”

Auckland South Corrections Facility (Photo: Supplied)

Datacom New Zealand is another employer that has committed to providing an internship programme for Take2 graduates. Managing director Justin Gray says he will be taking two students from the original cohort into roles at the company. “We want to help them with that next part of the journey,” Gray says, emphasising the need for the new recruits to be entering an supportive and nurturing environment.

“I would love us, in another six or 12 months’ time, to be able to point to some great examples of people who’ve not only gone through the programme, but actually successfully transitioned into meaningful employment that’s great for them, great for their families, great for the companies they’ve joined.”

While Gray knows the importance of nurturing home-grown talent for the tech sector, he never considered prisons as a potential source of employees. However, having met Smith and being exposed to his “infectious” determination to address New Zealand’s incarceration crisis, he said involving Datacom was an easy decision.

“It ties in with our broader vision of helping to build digital skills in a way that’s equitable across the community. As soon as we heard about it [Take2], it was a no-brainer for us to support it.”

With the backing of Tate Communications, the Tindall Foundation, Jr McKenzie trust, and the Spark Foundation, Take2 has raised $1.25m for future operations, and Serco is planning to open a second classroom within the prison.

Critically, there’s also the immensely valuable support of the Department of Corrections, which sees Take2 as a unique addition to its portfolio of prisoner rehabilitation programmes, most of which are based around construction, trades and primary industry training.

“Cam is a bit of a powerhouse in terms of the passion he’s got and the work he’s doing and the network he’s built with the tech sector,” says Department of Corrections CEO Jeremy Lightfoot. “The pilot phase has proven the value and impact… and it’s now about what we can do to get it scaled up to a level that can start to have broader impacts.”

Dangerous skills

With cyber crime a growing threat in New Zealand, one of the most unique aspects of Take2 is how it has addressed the risk of students using their new digital skills for nefarious purposes. Naturally, Smith maintains the same position on potential cyber crime as any other recidivism – just because the students have offended in the past doesn’t mean they will do it again.

In fact, many of those working with the programme are former prisoners or reformed offenders themselves. Motivational speaker and former convict Dr Paul Wood has spoken with the students, and the class teacher, Kirsty Gainfort, had a close brush with the law in an earlier life when she used her coding and programming skills for what she calls “illegal purposes”. Smith says bringing in successful and talented people with lived experience of the system creates a relatability that allows the students to connect, build rapport and have accessible role models.

Take2 Students (Photo: Michael Andrew)

But perhaps the most unique security measure is the in-class learning platform that was developed to function without a connection to the internet. A kind of “safe mode”, the platform was built by Datacom and the prison’s IT team, and allows the students to learn web development while protecting internal networks and servers.

So are the students really skilled enough to hypothetically hack into the prison system? Given they’ve learned without any access to the internet, probably not. But Juan de Roock, senior manager for engineering and customer applications at Air New Zealand – another participating employer – says the students’ programming knowledge is beyond the level of an entry level developer.

“I brought a colleague with me and had him observe and test their knowledge,” says de Roock. “The feedback was that they are closer to intermediate developers – they know more than juniors coming out of uni. And that was fascinating. Because these guys had only been coding for four to six months.”

While de Roock attributes their rapid development to the quality of the curriculum, which couples coding fundamentals with a clear goal-oriented approach in which the students can monitor their progress, he said the lack of internet connection takes away convenience and forces them to learn how to solve problems the old fashioned way.

“So they’ve got to literally figure out every problem themselves, or with the teacher. They don’t have a choice. They can’t access Stack Overflow or any library of resolutions. They’ve got to stick it out, which is great! It’s definitely helping them progress faster than normal.”

Class teacher Kirsty Gainfort agrees that teaching a solid foundation of coding basics has allowed the students to expand their knowledge to multiple languages. “It’s less complex than it looks. There are so many different coding languages but the fundamentals are really important. Once they’ve got those down then they’re away and it just gets easier,” she says.

Cameron Smith chatting with a student (Photo: Michael Andrew)

Not long after speaking with Gainfort, two students get up from their desks and approach me. “What’s the most inconvenient thing about your job?” one of them asks. “Transcribing interviews,” I reply. They huddle together to discuss it, before returning to their desks, seemingly pondering some kind of development solution to my administrative woes.

“They clearly want to understand what the world is outside,” says de Roock. “They are definitely looking for similarities and are interested in what we do and how we do it.”

Self-worth

While the emphasis of Take2 is on learning web development, Smith says it’s far more than just helping the students get cushy jobs in the tech sector. Rather, he says, it’s about helping them see themselves in a positive light, not merely as offenders in the prison system, but as creative and valuable people – fathers and sons and brothers; good men with hope for the future.

“We teach them development. But they don’t have to go out and be developers,” says Smith. “We want to support them in whatever way we can to set them up for success, however they want to define that in their life.

“The better we know them, the more trust they have in us. They know that we’re really in their corner.”

Which is why, alongside coding, the students are also taught communication skills, meditation, breathing exercises, and aspects of Tikanga Māori. The students practise tuakana teina – a mentorship system between senior students and junior ones – and one of them is in the process of making a carving that integrates traditional Māori designs with bits of Java Script. Once completed, the carving will sit in the classroom where each participant can sign it.

The Take2 carving (Photo: Michael Andrew)

Māori capability consultant Atawhai Tibble has been involved in guiding the tikanga framework within Take2, and has been “blown away” by the programme. “I could tell it wasn’t bullshit,” he says. “One of the guys showed me his website, and I knew it was his because it was a like a Bob Marley tribute page! And another guy had created a website for his marae!

“They were genuinely excited and interested. They were being looked after. The manaakitanga in the room was real.”

Being run out of a system that is widely condemned as flawed, Take2 could easily come under the same kind of doubt and criticism. After all, with only 10 initial students, its immediate impact isn’t likely to make a dent in New Zealand’s incarceration rate, nor in the tech worker shortage. On paper the whole programme could be perceived as a slick PR gimmick for Serco and a few tech companies.

But in that classroom, it’s exceedingly clear this isn’t the case. Pride, enthusiasm, creativity, discipline; these are all the things being fostered in a genuinely empathetic and attentive environment where students are not only learning code, but a far more rare and essential skill – how to value themselves.

“Take2 really feels like a second chance at life and has been a healing experience for me,” one student wrote about the programme. “The last few years leading up to my imprisonment was a downward spiral of failure and disappointment. Since then Take2 has turned my life around.

“I feel happy, confident and can see a bright and better future for myself and my family.”




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