Prisoners Turning Prisoners into Programmers

04/01/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015
Robyn Scott

Sihle Tshabalala was in prison in South Africa 10 years and 10 months for armed robbery. He always counts the months, sometimes the days: the inmate's legacy.

The day he was released, he returned to his mother's tiny house in Langa, a poor, crime-riddled township near Cape Town. He had been back three hours when an old connection -- a "naughty guy" -- popped round with an offer. Did he want a job as a getaway driver? One hour's work. The payment: 50,000 Rand (about 4,000 dollars). A small fortune for a man in his situation.

Sihle declined. He was a different man now, an entrepreneur. Along with me and several others, he had co-founded Brothers for All, a non-profit social enterprise with a mission to solve the intricately woven problems of poverty and crime, which he knew so intimately.

The bewildered robber, understandably, shrugged at the snub. Unemployment in Langa, for those without a criminal record, is well over 50%. With only a high school certificate, employment options are construction sites, fast-food joints, factories -- if you're lucky. You'll earn 1-3 dollars an hour. While you work, or walk home, you'll watch billionaires glide by. South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The two richest people own as much as the poorest 50% of the population -- 26 million people.

What could compete with the offer of R 50,000? When we formed Brothers for All and considered the answers to this question, all roads led to coding. With a computer and an internet connection, you can learn it for free. With commitment, you can learn it quickly. And when you can code, you will get a job. In the Western Cape province of South Africa alone, there are more than 20,000 unfilled software-development jobs.

We knew the logic. What we didn't know was if people with no experience using computers -- and with mediocre, if any, high school qualifications -- could quickly learn to code. Sihle was our guinea pig. Fresh out of prison, he sat down to Codecademy. In six weeks, he had taught himself to code in three languages. "Prison teaches you to concentrate," he jokes.

Prison also teaches you to become very persuasive. In October 2014, Sihle and Mzi Duda -- our other ex-offender co-founder -- opened our first township coding center. We welcomed all at-risk youth: ex-offenders, teenage mothers, high school dropouts. "This can change your life," Sihle says. "I've been poor. I've made mistakes. I know."

Brothers for All tackles the cycle of poverty and crime by teaching aspirational technology and entrepreneurship skills to offenders, ex-offenders, and at-risk youth. We started with 20 students. Since then, Sihle has been on the road talking about coding, about dreams, and about leadership. Today, five months later, 170 students have enrolled with us. Most days students queue for computers.

The queues got worse after a recent armed robbery. Just after noon, five men with guns stormed in and held up a room of students and my co-founders. The robbers took half our computers, and most of the students' mobile phones. "A bitter medicine for an ex-armed robber," Sihle observed afterward. Then he brightened: "Maybe we'll be teaching them to code in prison soon."

In April, Brothers for All will launch pilot coding programs in several maximum- and medium-security prisons in South Africa -- male, female and juvenile.

Twenty-three year old Sibusiso Gabuza was one of the students held up. Sibu lives in a one-bedroom shack, with nine other people. He sleeps on the kitchen floor. The moment he sat down to code he was hooked. After a week, he was so good he was teaching other students. "I fell in love with coding," he says, misty eyed. "And I fell in love with Brothers for All. This is my home. It helps people heal inside. Here every day I hear good news. Every day I meet amazing people. Here I can be a coder and a leader."

Sibu was asked to give a statement at the police station after the robbery. As soon as he'd finished, he hurried back to the coding center. He was worried there'd be students needing his help. He was right: several new students, undeterred by being held up at gunpoint, were working on the few remaining computers -- frowning over inexplicable quirks in HTML5. Most students struggle to start. But they are encouraged by mentors who know what it's like to have never used a computer, and they are inspired by the prospect of starting their own company, or getting a cool job with one of Brothers for All's employment partners -- local and international tech companies.

Jabulani Saliwa is similarly evangelical about the organization, and about Sihle and Mzi. "My name is now Jabulani Brothers for All Saliwa," he jokes with Sibu, who taught him to code. Jabu loves the fact that students code for free, but everyone has to help make the recycled jewelry that raises money for local orphanages. "You are never too poor to help people," he says. He notes, chuckling, that the robbers were so disgusted by his ancient phone they threw it back at him. "The people we call poor can make the world better. I see being poor as training. Once you start poor it's not easy for anyone to break you. Some great leaders were poor. Look at Steve Biko. Look at Steve Jobs."

Jabu, Sibu and four women -- most of our students are women -- have just won scholarships to an elite coding program, CodeX, in the city of Cape Town. On the weekends though, they always come back to the township, to continue mentoring. "This is home," says Sibu. "Here we can change our community." When he's not mentoring, he's working on a new idea for an app. It frustrates him that people quickly spend their small paychecks on goods, then run out of money for electricity. "I want the app to connect with the bank and the power company so some money goes straight to electricity before you waste it," he explains. "No electricity keeps people poor."

Jabu nods. "You know in Africa, we have a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I think this is wrong. I think now it takes a world to raise a child. You need to be connected to people and ideas around the world. Brothers for All does that."

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.