back to article Turns out teaching criminals to write web code keeps them out of prison

Teaching prisoners how to design and program websites turns out to improve their sense of self-worth and provides them with digital literacy skills that help them stay out of prison. Boffins at MIT CSAIL and University of Massachusetts Lowell report that their Brave Behind Bars program, a 12-week college-accredited web design …

  1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Yea, a big improvement

    The American prison activity for years has been only to punish everyone, not help the prisoners learn to avoid all criminal activity once they are released. But that has made it hard for a released prisoner to earn any money (they often just become "homeless") so the crime rates stay up in the US. But teaching everyone how to work honestly, and earn money to live on, is going to help.

    This is based on watching the US situation for 40 years now and recently helping a homeless former pensioner who was trying to live but only being offered $10 a day for a job. His imprisonment was a result of being in a bar with a fight starting and then he worked to stop the fight, when the police arrived he was arrested but the court case had jailed him for 10 years, destroying his home life.

    1. goodjudge

      Re: Yea, a big improvement

      "The American prison activity for years has been only to punish everyone"

      The American prison activity for years has been only to make money for the companies that run the jails, so it helps to keep their 'customers' in a position that they become regular visitors, e.g. by not attempting to rehabilitate or educate them or giving them anything to survive on when they leave.

      1. Jedit Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Yea, a big improvement

        You forgot to mention the prison labour angle. When slavery was abolished in the US, to avoid any issue with hard labour sentences a provision was left in that you could still be sentenced to slavery if you committed a crime. This is still used today as a justification for assigning convicts to work in exchange for a fraction of a normal wage, with the profits from their labour going directly to the companies that operate the prisons.

    2. andy the pessimist

      Re: Yea, a big improvement

      I hope they do some more of this work. Education is good. Literacy of uk criminals is poor. Improving literacy in criminals would be good.

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Yea, a big improvement

      "But teaching everyone how to work honestly, and earn money to live on, is going to help."

      It's a necessary first step. It also needs to be followed up with getting them into work.

    4. hedgie Bronze badge

      Re: Yea, a big improvement

      I work in transitional housing for people with SUDs[1] and most are ex-cons. One guy was translating textbooks into braille while inside, and the company not only developed those skills within him, but gave him some fairly significant grant money once released to get the office setup needed to continue that work. Having people get released with something to do that isn't just "productive", or giving them income, but also a future and sense of fulfilment really does help prevent them from going back.

      [1] Substance Use Disorder

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    I disagree

    "one of the reasons the Land of the Free has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world"

    That is not the reason.

    The reason is that prisons are private companies who have primed the law to send them people that other countries would use rehabilitation programs to get back on track.

    The War on Drugs is just one good excuse to condemn users to jail instead of going after dealers - there's more of the former.

    Then you have police entrapment with "hookers" who are just there to entice men to commit, then get cuffed.

    That is why the Land of the Free has the highest incarceration rate. It's a business.

    1. LogicGate Silver badge

      Re: I disagree

      It is all due to fake hookers? My mind is boggled.

      Maybe they did not see the public service announcement on how to deal with fake hookers:

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I disagree

      Is American kissing your "r"s to keep that view? These days America is just the Land of the Fee.

  3. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Who'd have thought giving prisoners skills they can use on the outside to help them live and be part of society would have helped reduce re-offending rates?

    Sure, prison has to have some element of punishment too - but helping give prisons options that don't revolve around crime are just as important.

    1. TonyJ

      Came to say pretty much this.

      How come it comes as a surprise to learn that if you give people useful skills where they can be used to get a job and be self-sufficient, and with it, have greater self esteem, you see lower levels of recidivism?

      Yes, punishment is a necessary component.

      But treating prisoners like they are subhuman only goes on to perpetuate the issues.

      You only have to look at places such as Norway to see how a prison system that is run properly can change the trajectory of a criminal's life.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        How come it comes as a surprise to learn that if you give people useful skills where they can be used to get a job and be self-sufficient, and with it, have greater self esteem, you see lower levels of recidivism?

        Who said it was a surprise?

        The point of research isn't to surprise you. It's to provide support for or against a hypothesis. The assumption that skills training would reduce recidivism is of little use in changing policy. Evidence that it actually does, on the other hand, is useful.

    2. Orv Silver badge

      The punishment part is the part where you don't get to leave. For most people that's sufficient.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Plest Silver badge

    Coding made me want to kill!

    30+ years at the keyboard and the number of times I've wanted to smash the place up or kill irritating users, project managers and everyone who thinks they can do my job better than me....deep breaths....just a few more years to retirement.....

    1. TonyJ

      Re: Coding made me want to kill!

      I mean that is true of everyone in every role in IT... :-)

      1. LogicGate Silver badge

        Re: Coding made me want to kill!

        Whenever someone tries to argue that FPS games lead to violence, I just have to think about the immense urge to go fully berserker that Microsoft Office can create.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    An excess of self-efficacy might have been behind some offenders. "We're clever and they're just mugs."

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      There is some evidence from psychological surveys that criminals tend to be more self-confident than the population as a whole; that was one of the findings that helped discredit "ego psychology" some decades back. But there's a difference between self-confidence and self-efficacy. Also, self-selection into training programs tends to bias the population in those programs toward those who aren't excessively self-confident, since the most obvious motive for expending resources (time, attention, cognitive load, possibly opportunity cost) in being trained is a self-perception of room for improvement.

      1. trindflo Bronze badge

        Self confidence

        So are you saying that by giving people like this opportunity, we might be creating the next Mark Zuckerberg? They are CEOs minus that first big score?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Advanced education in prisons

    Maybe passing advanced exams should reduce their prison time. A great motivator and win-win for society.

  8. Philo T Farnsworth

    Jail, jail, the gang's all here, what the heck do we care. . .

    Just don't teach them about cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and blockchain.

    On the other hand, maybe Sam Bankrupt-Fraud will learn some useful skills while in stir for the next couple of decades or so. . .

    1. wobball

      Re: Jail, jail, the gang's all here, what the heck do we care. . .

      How to keep daddy sweet being high on the list!

      He'll be passed around like a joint.

  9. IGotOut Silver badge

    The fact this is news....

    ....shows how bad the prison system is in many cases.

    Next week's headline.... Spending money preventing people going to prison in the first place is good idea.

    But that doesn't get votes from the "hang em all" brigade. Instead you get a bunch of rich old men going *We must be tough on crime"

  10. 7teven 4ect

    If you cover your eyes the monsters don't exist, my child

    Here in the UK, crime accounts for 100% of all recorded crime, and computer crime adds an extra 100%.

    That's right, UK gov and Police have conspired to simply not count half of all crime, for the purposes of self-congratulation and election strategies etc.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So Trump will be learning how to code soon?

    The best websites ever!

  12. Bebu Silver badge

    Got to love the language....

    incarcerated individuals = prisoners

    carceral supervision - ok probably a technical term like self-efficacy but carceral brings lurking jackals or hyenas to mind.

    The program is taught synchronously and remotely via Zoom = delivered live via zoom (remote is clearly understood)

    Have to wonder whether the lower recidivism rates reflect an enhanced ability to avoid being caught. Stimulating the brain cells in one domain (CSS3 say) increases the likelihood those neurons will be used in another.

    I didn't think there was a particularly great demand for web developers but I suppose the skills transfer to other areas. Dark web development. :)

    Years ago I saw some statistics on the illiteracy rates in US gaols - appallingly high at that time. Unchanged I think. Ensuring all prisoners have the opportunity and encouragement to reach functional literacy before release would probably have a greater effect in reducing recidivism. Possibly earlier parole on reaching a level of reading comprehension and written composition could be the motivation. If you can't read or write not even the military want you.

    The idea that you could lock up the entire population of Cyprus (Turkish and Greek) in the gaols of the US beggars belief but would be an interesting exercise and at least afterwards the two communities would hate Americans more than each other.

  13. tyrfing

    This article is useless.

    As far as I can tell, they did a post-course survey of 34 students on their attitudes after taking the course. And this is what powers the study that resulted in a paper.

    How many of you have answered a survey after finishing a course for work? How honest were you about answering the questions?

    The article mentions nothing about measuring actual recidivism rates for course takers vs. general rates. In other words, did the course actually help them stay out of prison?

    Maybe the actual study mentions this (though with only 34 subjects this is unlikely). But the article has a misleading headline as a result.

    I see that most commenters got distracted by ragging on the incarceration rates in the US instead. Good job. Squirrel!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If we had to publish a journal paper to justify every effort at being good, we would get nowhere.

      First of all, having just scanned the referenced paper, I have to agree it hasn't followed the scientific method. There is no "placebo" group, there is no monitoring for recidivism for 10 years, etc. However, the mistake is not in volunteering to educate prisoners, it's only in the approach to writing about it as a science paper making conclusions that can't really be backed by the limited data available with the "experiment".

      Helping people who need help - that's one of the principal components of human instinctive behavior (although there will differing interpretations of who is deserving).

      Helping prisoners reform by giving them some fulfilling purpose is actually a no-brainer and already widespread. E.g. True post civil war story - The Professor and the Madman (2019). Furthermore, high school, tradesmen skills, and higher education courses, have all been a staple of prisoner reform for as long as I have been alive.

      It doesn't have to scholarly or education related either. After I was bitten by a stranger's dog, I ended up watching a lot of YT videos about prisons where prisoners are allowed to take on badly behaving dogs and train them up to the point where they can adopted. Their testimonies - as they explain the profound and positive impact on themselves of helping another being (the dogs) and being loved by them in return - are truly moving and impressive. Anybody watching those videos would get all the proof they need from the emotions evident in the prisoners words and faces - e.g., "I have never been loved before".

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Conclusion: Locking Students in their dorm rooms would increase higher educational efficacy

    From the paper: One such factor to be revealed is the tendency for education in carceral settings to stimulate general self-efficacy, which is well-documented as a key predictor in preventing recidivism.... Allred et al. [ 2] also show that academic accomplishments arising from participating in the same college-level course have a larger effect on self-efficacy for incarcerated students than for students who are not incarcerated.

    Let's try it and then measure whether the incarcerated students who grow up to be university professors or presidents produce fewer papers with fake/manipulated data.

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