SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Aly Tamboura says when he began serving a 14-year sentence, prison felt like a shadowy world forgotten by the rest of society.
"It was the height of lock 'em up and throw away the key," says Tamboura, 49, who has been in prison for 12 years for assault with a deadly weapon. "There was no light shining on incarceration."
That's changing. This week a senior White House official paid a visit to the prison classroom where Tamboura learned how to write computer code. Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, listened attentively as Tamboura showed off the interactive graphics he and a fellow inmate created out of data sets to help parents compare the effects of diseases, say tetanus or diphtheria, and the vaccines that can prevent them.
"It was amazing today to have someone from the White House come in and say, 'Hey look, we understand mass incarceration is a problem and we are looking to do something about it,'" Tamboura said following Jarrett's visit.
Criminal justice reform has emerged as a top issue of President Obama's remaining months in office. Bipartisan support has grown for legislation to reduce the sentences of nonviolent offenders and the bulging population of U.S. prisons. Key to the success of any reform: giving inmates the skills and opportunities they need to readjust to the outside world, says Jarrett, who traveled to San Quentin to see first-hand a program that she says is doing just that.
"What makes a lot of sense is that, while people are incarcerated, give them the tools they need to be able to have a productive, lucrative living when they leave so they can provide for their families and break that cycle of recidivism," Jarrett told USA TODAY at San Quentin. "I don't know how to code. I should know how to code. The fact that these citizens are developing skills that I don't have, I think will prepare them for the workforce that awaits them when they leave."
The Obama administration is putting the spotlight on programs that help former inmates make the transition from prison cells to paying jobs. It's part of a broader effort to reform the criminal justice system that, after the tough-on-crime push of the 1980s and 1990s, has resulted in more than two million people behind bars at a cost of $80 billion a year.
In response to the dramatic rise in incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color, a pair of technology entrepreneurs created the Last Mile, a technology incubator inside San Quentin that teaches coding and entrepreneurial skills to ease ex-offenders' transition back into society. Next week the Last Mile will launch a new program that employs prison inmates as software engineers.
Jarrett says the Last Mile shows the critical role that the private sector can play. During her visit to the Bay Area, Jarrett met with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and had dinner with tech executives receptive to welcoming former inmates into their employ.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visited the Last Mile program with his wife Priscilla Chan a year ago, encouraged Jarrett to make the trip. "Mark Zuckerberg mentioned to me that he had visited, how impressed he was with the program, the potential that he saw in the people who are participating in the program," Jarrett said.
Jarrett's visit to San Quentin came the week before the launch of a new joint venture between the Last Mile, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Prison Industry Authority that will pay inmates $16.77 an hour to write code, the highest wage for an inmate job in California.
Already inmates have been working informally on projects for major tech companies and they built the web site that will market their work.
"Just about anything you can dream up, we can do," says Chris Schuhmacher, a graduate of the Last Mile coding boot camp who is one of the first seven inmates accepted into the joint venture. Eventually 24 inmates will get their shot as intern-level work as software engineers for businesses outside the prison.
Schuhmacher, who was sentenced to 16 years to life for second-degree murder, currently makes 40 cents as a student. His new paycheck will be split five ways after taxes, going toward room and board, family support, inmate spending account, victims' compensation and mandatory savings.
The promise of a better life after parole is changing the culture inside the prison, says Harry Hemphill, who explained the coding program to Jarrett.
"There are men out there buying books, coding books, and setting up study groups, just in hope of getting in this program," said Hemphill, who was an engineer at Volvo and Yamaha before landing in prison.
Bringing technology inside a state prison has not been easy. Inmates must build software without access to the Internet, using instead a private server and secure network.
Last Mile creators Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti say the partnership between the tech industry and the prison system makes fiscal sense. The cost of an inmate to attend coding boot camp and prepare for a job with the joint venture is $5,000, a relatively minor investment considering the average cost to house an inmate at San Quentin for a year is $70,202, Redlitz said. In return, California's recidivism rate, one of the nation's highest, could decline.
Forty-two inmates have graduated from the entrepreneurship program, 51 from the coding boot camp. All of the graduates get an internship in the tech sector after leaving prison. Nine are employed full time in tech-related companies. Recidivism among the 15 returned citizens who graduated from the Last Mile: zero.
New challenges will face those graduates, many of whom are people of color. The technology industry, especially in Silicon Valley, is wrestling with a lack of diversity. A tiny percentage of employees at major tech companies here are African American and Hispanic.
"The tech community has taken the first step by recognizing that diversity is a strength and realizing that many of them have to work on their culture," Jarrett says.
Tamboura, a divorced father of three, will soon find out for himself. He's counting down the days until his Oct. 5 parole. After spending time with his grandchildren, he'll start a new job as an intern for a San Francisco tech company.
"Before I really worried about what I was going to do," he says. "Now I know I have the skills."