24/02/2016 06:57 GMT | Updated 22/02/2017 05:12 GMT

From Prisoner to Programmer: What Can the UK Learn From Silicon Valley?

Last week David Cameron unveiled plans for the "biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era". His proposals included prison league tables, more day release tagging, and new model "reform prisons".

The proposals also include giving prison governors greater autonomy, similar to those afforded to Headteachers in academies and free schools.

"It's exactly what we did in education - with academies, free schools and new freedoms for heads and teachers," said the prime minister.

Perhaps greater autonomy and transparency aren't the only school reforms that would benefit the prison service. In September 2014, a new computing curriculum was introduced in all schools, which featured coding as a core component. It was seen as critical that pupils learn skills that support them long after leaving the classroom, of which coding is one. The same could be said of prisoners needing skills that will support them after walking out of the prison gate.

Unsurprisingly, we must look to Silicon Valley for the new, cutting-edge innovation. Or more precisely, to the hills overlooking the bay, which are home to San Quentin, California's oldest prison. To put San Quentin in a UK justice context, it would be a category A prison - it's home to 699 death row inmates.

Since 2013, groups of prisoners have been learning HTML, Python and JavaScript as part of the Code 7370 programme run by a charity, The Last Mile. As with any prison rehabilitation programme it comes with its own set of challenges - but one in particular stands out. No internet access. You also have men serving longer sentences who have never used the internet or a smartphone. "I had a flip phone, a Nextel phone, but I don't think it was very smart", said top student Aly Tamboura.

If you've ever learnt to code through Codeacademy, Udemy or Coursera you'll already know the drill, when you get stuck, you google for the solution. But not on Code 7370. The solution at San Quentin is to use a book. "Every resource they have is either a book or documentation or files we have written or downloaded for them," describes Wes Bailey, the program director.

At the end of the six-month intensive computer programming classes, the cohort pitch at a "Demo Day" to Silicon Valley investors and local tech businesses. At the last Demo Day ideas pitched by Code.7370 graduates included: Teen Mob, an online community to support victims of bullying; GPS, an app to track school grades; and VocaLock, a voice activated locking system.

"It's hard to get a job, period. So imagine coming out of prison and you want to look for a job!" said Darnell Hill, a Last Mile graduate at the 2015 Demo Day. Following his release after 24 years, he and fellow programme graduate Kenyatta Leal are now working in the tech industry. In 1994 Kenyatta was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, under California's three strikes law. When he was released in 2013, within two weeks he had secured an internship at tech start-up RocketSpace.

So, could it work in a British prison?

We face the same challenges around high reoffending rates - 46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release. This increases to 60% for those serving sentences of under 12 months. Plus, we have an even more acute skills shortage than San Francisco. It is predicted that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 300,000 workers with digital skills in London alone.

It will require radical thinking and doing it properly will not be cheap - but if Britain wants a genuinely "twenty-first century prison system," then The Last Mile initiative would be a great place to start.