Students helping one another in an Unloop classroom

I’ve supported Unloop since I met David, one of the founders, at a diversity & inclusion related conference. When he told me about their mission to teach tech skills to incarcerated people, I was gobsmacked at the idea, and in the years since have been nothing but impressed by the tenacity of the team as they work across government, education, and correctional facility bureaucracies (enough that I’m a member of the board of directors). Recently a trio of us spent a day as the first of their series of employer visits, to share a bit about Substantial, our own career arcs, and the path ahead for them as they venture into their careers in tech.

The Agenda

We visited two facilities within Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), the first minimum security, the latter medium security. For both we arrived and checked in before heading to the classroom, each with about fifteen male students. After an icebreaker, we described Substantial and our roles before opening the room to questions. The latter half of each visit was informational interviews with individual students, giving them an opportunity to share their own story and ask more specific questions.

Despite my familiarity with Unloop, I didn’t fully understand the challenges their students face while learning software development. They’re working with limited computer time, a scarcity of materials, and most interestingly, no Internet. That means no Google, no Stack Overflow, and no connected Github. They have a server with PDF materials, physical printouts (sometimes of entire textbooks), their instructor, and each other, but that’s it. In some cases they’ve been incarcerated since before the Internet was commonplace, so they’re learning without full experience or context.

That lack of context was one of the hardest things to address as we spoke. As the first employer visit, we weren’t just representing ourselves, but the entire tech industry, and doing so to a room full of people that have likely never worked even adjacent to the tech industry, let alone in it. We had to speak at an industry-wide level to provide some sort of foundation, specify how Substantial fits into that wider tech landscape as an agency that builds digital products but that (generally) isn’t a product company, and then attempt to set realistic expectations about what challenges they may face. It was a lot of ground to cover in not very much time.

Many of the questions we received were specifically around the challenges students might face, curious if Unloop was really setting them up for success. Between wondering if their curriculum was obsolete and if employers would really give them a chance, students were understandably a bit skeptical. When we described that we use React as one of our many frameworks, we could see students relax, which continued when we tried to give them accurate, sometimes difficult answers about how not every employer is going to give them an opportunity or be best suited for them. Much like anyone else, it’s all about finding the right fit, and while they may have some additional challenges that’s no reason to be disheartened.

Final Impressions

The biggest thing we discussed on the way back to the office was just how many different emotions we were feeling. We started the day a bit uncomfortable, as it was our first visit to a prison and we didn’t know what to expect. The silence, inhibited movement, and sterile surroundings are a far cry from our fluid workday and vibrant office. It’s also jarring to hear someone share the story of why they’re in prison, and needing to work through that moment of unease.

We were disheartened, seeing these students working with so many barriers. The lack of computer time and Internet seem particularly daunting, but the overall support structure seems to often leave these students fighting against the tide. That’s before they even get released and need to deal with the biases they’ll face in larger society. They have a lot of anxiety and rightfully so. Not matter how good a job Unloop and other programs do, there are many challenges ahead.

We mostly left inspired, seeing how these students were making the best of their situation, passionate about the work they’re doing, and genuinely curious about us and our stories. There were so many different experiences for why they’re interested in software development, the projects they’ve worked on, and what this education means to them. For example, hearing a student compare writing code to writing an aria, and how they have to do both in their head would be an invigorating conversation regardless of context as was talking with another about how they used to program games in BASIC, which mirrors my own tech beginning.

That inspiration has persisted in the days since our visit, with active conversations about how Substantial can further support Unloop and its students. This visit added faces to Unloop’s stories in a very real way and we’re looking forward to doing more with them in the months ahead. We’d highly encourage you and your company to look into doing the same. Unloop is in a position to change lives, but they need community help to make that happen.

You can find information about Unloop, how to donate, and how your company can support their efforts on their site.