Prison coding program gives women other options
Anna Sothman, an inmate pictured at the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville on Wednesday, has completed two coding classes and is also acting as a teaching assistant for the program. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)
Anna Sothman, who took two coding classes, is pictured at the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville on Wednesday. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)
Anna Sothman shows off one of her wireframe designs for a fictional website at the Iowa Women’s Correctional Facility in Mitchellville on Wednesday. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)
For incarcerated women who are learning the skill, knowledge of computer programming can lead to in-demand employment and break the cycle back to prison.
“So many women that I see coming back again and again. It’s because when they got out there, things are tough, ”said Sothman, 33, who served about five years at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.
“They fell back on what they knew and ended up here as a result. If this is a way for them to have something to fall back on that isn’t drug or male related, then I want so many girls to have this opportunity not to come back.
Aaron Horn, executive director of NewBoCo, said the organization wanted to work with Mitchellville Corrections in part because it is easier to get permission to teach onsite in the medium security women’s prison. / minimum than in some men’s establishments. But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the classes taught so far have been virtual.
There is also a shortage of women in computer programming. Women make up only 20% of IT professionals, according to Code.org, a group dedicated to expanding access to computers among women and other under-represented groups.
“We’re huge on diversity in software development,” Horn said. “Women are under-represented in software development, so there was an opportunity to diversify. “
Computer programmers make a lot of money. ZipRecruiter Reports The Iowa median salary for entry-level programmers is $ 32,000 and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the median annual salary for computer programmers nationwide in May 2020 was $ 89,190.
There has been a push for the STEM program – science, technology, engineering, and math – in K-12 schools, and classes and camps to teach girls to code have sprung up in Iowa and the country.
Launching the prison project was not easy. The biggest challenge has been to provide Mitchellville students with sufficient computer access to complete the coding exercises without giving them full Internet access, which is not allowed for security reasons. With just virtual education, it’s difficult to teach the higher-level Delta V classes, Horn said.
“The other idea, which is really starting to take shape, is that once they’re released they could come and end up at Delta V,” Horn said. “We have a student getting ready to enroll in Delta V. She wants to take the full program. “
The Correctional Service’s coding program is not accredited as an apprenticeship with the US Department of Labor, but graduates get a certificate of completion that they can use in their job search.
“These jobs are so in demand that more and more employers are dropping their four-year degree requirement,” Horn said. Criminal records “aren’t the deal breakers they used to be. They (employers) are much more willing to give people a second chance.
Sothman had never heard of Delta V, but saw that the app mentioned web design and decided to give it a try. The first class was an intensive one-day “fire hydrant” to learn the basics of coding, she said.
“I went back to my room and called my dad and said ‘I love this’,” she said. Her father, also a programmer, said he knew she would because coding combines logic and creativity.
Sothman sees huge potential for female programmers to develop web interfaces for women-owned businesses. She has a notebook filled with wireframe drawings of fictional websites and loves experimenting with different colors that she can create with her code.
“Even when I’m on parole and once home, I still want to keep going,” said Sothman, who doesn’t know when she will be released. “You can work pretty much anywhere. It’s a great creative outlet for me.
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