From the streets to programming tweets

By Christopher Zoukis

One of the biggest obstacles we face in prison education programs these days, is the outpacing of technology in terms of both course content and equipment. Technological development has occurred at breakneck speed in the last ten years, yet instruction in those areas is largely absent in the bulk of penal institutions. Lack of internet access is, of course, one of the biggest issues in this respect. And while we completely acknowledge the need to control access, that needn’t come at the complete expense of computer and internet literacy, and Columbia University’s Center of Justice has just done wonders to prove that.

@rikersbot tweets out a new message every day.
@rikersbot tweets out a new message every day.

Using unconventional, primarily paper-based methods, instructors taught young students being held at Riker’s Island the basics of programming and allowed them to contribute to the creation of a “Riker’s Story Bot.”  With a paucity of computers and no internet, these teachers went above and beyond, using physical representations and modelling to help students to understand the basics of programming and, specifically, Python (a programming language that is recognized for its relative “readability” in the world of code). The end result was the creation of a twitter bot that every day tweets out messages developed and edited by inmates at the facility.

The beauty of this collaboration is that it’s not just about coding; it’s about story-telling as well.  Students had to write their own tweets and figure out how best to engage within the constraints of the 140 character maximum. Inmates are given a digital voice to share their experiences with the world. The individual messages crafted by inmates are then tweeted out as a singular expression of their experiences.

Because Rikers only houses inmates for a short period of time, the scope of this program is limited. But it represents an important landmark in pedagogy, illustrating the incredible opportunities that can be offered  While the Riker’s students were primarily teens, most of whom were likely tweeting before entering the jail, many inmates across the country have incredible difficulty conceiving of, let alone fully understanding, the role of social media in the modern world. This puts them at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to being successful upon re-entry into society. 

Some institutions are realizing this, as San Quentin’s Code 7370 illustrates. There, prisoners are provided instruction in CSS, Javascript, and HTML. Because of internet restrictions, these courses also function offline, with a program officer who can access the internet on behalf of students when needed. Models for prison education and training that keep pace with the digital world, even within the constraints of the prison environment are possible–it just takes creativity and political will to make it happen.

Leave a Reply