What I learned going from prison to Python

How open source programming can offer opportunities after incarceration.
291 readers like this
291 readers like this

Less than a year ago, I was in San Quentin State Prison serving a life sentence.

In my junior year in high school, I shot a man while robbing him. Now, it took a while for me to see or even admit that what I did was wrong, but after going through a jury trial and seeing the devastating consequences of my actions, I knew that I needed to make a change, and I did. And although it was a great thing that I had changed, I had still shot a man and nearly killed him. And there are consequences to doing something like that, and rightfully so. So at the age of 18, I was sentenced to life in prison.

Now prison is a terrible place; I do not recommend it. But I had to go and so I went. I’ll spare you the details, but you can rest assured it’s a place where there isn’t much incentive to change, and many people pick up more bad habits than they went in with.

I’m one of the lucky ones. While I was in prison, something different happened. I started to imagine a future for myself beyond the prison bars where, up until that point, I had spent all of my adult life.

Now YOU think about this: I’m black, with nothing more than a high school education. I had no work history, and if I ever were to leave prison, I would be a convicted felon upon my release. And I think I’m being fair when I say that the first thought for an employer who sees this profile is not "I need to hire this person."

My options weren’t clear, but my mind was made up. I needed to do something to survive that wouldn’t look anything like my life before prison.

A path to Python

Eventually, I wound up in San Quentin State Prison, and I had no idea how lucky I was to be there. San Quentin offered several self-help and education programs. These rehabilitation opportunities ensured prisoners had skills that helped them avoid being repeat offenders upon release.

As part of one of these programs, I met Jessica McKellar in 2017 through her work with the San Quentin Media Program. Jessica is an enthusiast of the programming language Python, and she started to sell me on how great Python is and how it’s the perfect language to learn for someone just starting out. And this is where the story becomes stranger than fiction.

 

 

Jessica told me about these Python video tutorials that she did for a company called O’Reilly Media, that they were online, and how great it would be if I could get access to them. Unfortunately, internet access in prison isn’t a thing. But, I had met this guy named Tim O’Reilly, who had recently come to San Quentin. It turns out that, after his visit, Tim had donated a ton of content from his company, O’Reilly Media, to the prison’s programming class. I wound up getting my hands on a tablet that had Jessica’s Python tutorials on it and learned how to code using those Python tutorials.

It was incredible. Total strangers with a very different background and life from my own had connected the dots in a way that led to me learning to code.

The love of the Python community

After this point, I started meeting with Jessica pretty frequently, and she began to tell me about the open source community. What I learned is that, on a fundamental level, open source is about fellowship and collaboration. It works so well because no one is excluded.

And for me, someone who struggled to see where they fit, what I saw was a very basic form of love—love by way of collaboration and acceptance, love by way of access, love by way of inclusion. And my spirit yearned to be a part of it. So I continued my education with Python, and, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get more tutorials, but I was able to draw from the vast wealth of written knowledge that has been compiled by the open source community. I read anything that even mentioned Python, from paperback books to obscure magazine articles, and I used the tablet that I had to solve the Python problems that I read about.

My passion for Python and programming wasn’t something that many of my peers shared. Aside from the very small group of people who were in the prison’s programming class, no one else that I knew had ever mentioned programming; it’s just not on the average prisoner’s radar. I believe that this is due to the perception that programming isn’t accessible to people who have experienced incarceration, especially if you are a person of color.

Life with Python outside of prison

Then, on August 17, 2018, I got the surprise of my life. Then-Governor Jerry Brown commuted my 27-years-to-life sentence, and I was released from prison after serving almost 19 years.

But here’s the reality of my situation and why I believe that programming and the open source community are so valuable. I am a 37-year-old, black, convicted felon, with no work history, who just served 18 years in prison. There aren’t many professions that exist that would prevent me from being at the mercy of the stigmas and biases that inevitably accompany my criminal past. But one of the few exceptions is programming.

The people who are now returning back to society after incarceration are in desperate need of inclusion, but when the conversation turns to diversity in the workplace and how much it’s needed, you really don’t hear this group being mentioned or included.

 

 

So with that, I want to humbly challenge all of the programmers and members of the open source community to expand your thinking around inclusion and diversity. I proudly stand before you today as the representative of a demographic that most people don’t think about—formerly incarcerated people. But we exist, and we are eager to prove our value, and, above all else, we are looking to be accepted. Many challenges await us upon our reentry back into society, and I ask that you allow us to have the opportunity to demonstrate our worth. Welcome us, accept us, and, more than anything else, include us.

What to read next

15 Comments

Thank you for sharing your story! It is truly inspiring. Congratulations for having worked your way up. Never stop going! While this isn't directly comparable to your situation, the way you learned programming (in an environment without access to important resources like Internet access) reminds me a bit of how I got interested in computing. I was about 10 years old (early 1990s), there was no computer anywhere in reach (and my parents couldn't afford one) but I discovered a bunch of outdated books on programming old 8 bit home computers in Basic in the local library (back then we were already in the x86 era). I worked them through, wrote small programs on paper - and tested them whenever there was one of those rare chances to access a real computer. If you're passionate about something you can bypass any barrier.
I'm happy for you that you seem to have found passion in computing too!

On behalf of the python community, I just wanted to say: thank you to you Sha for bringing such an important issue to light, and also, it's good to have you here. Keep on coding man, you're awesome.

Your keynote was incredible. It was by far my favourite moment if the conference. I've tried to recommended it to folks and am glad that the video is now available online.

Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that one day it will be a common narrative.

That's amazing, and wonderful to hear. I'm over the moon that you were able to overcome those obstacles and get back to living. Hopefully this message helps generate more allies and increases the understanding that when someone has paid their debt to society, they deserve to be welcomed back and given every opportunity. You're an inspiration.

You are a great inspiration, Sha!
Many thanks for this.
And all the best for everything!

Very inspirational to read about your discovery of open-source software programming as a way to bring purpose into your life, Sha. Good luck to you and others like you who follow your footsteps.

As a small company in Silicon Valley that works with open-source exclusively, we are open to helping with educating others on some advanced security concepts/technology. Let us know how we can help - finding us is easy at StrongKey dot com.

I agree with you, Arshad, in the matter of this amazing discovery of open source programming as a way to bring purpose to life. It's a great deed.

In reply to by Arshad Noor (not verified)

See also the Staffing Cooperative [https://www.corestaffing.us/home] out of Baltimore, MD. which describes itself as "a cooperative staffing agency for returning citizens (previously incarcerated individuals) that uses temporary work, open occupational-focused education, and shared ownership to achieve the entrepreneurial, educational, and career goals of its members while delivering affordable talent to its clients. We provide businesses with part-time, full-time and per-project talent leasing solutions."

We at NWD want to keep in touch with Staffing and see if there's room for cross-pollination. ;-)

As an ex-con myself who did 10 years when I was 17 (got out when I was 27), I'd like to thank you for this.
I've always felt shunned by society, but stories like this give me some hope :-)

Have a LinkedIn profile for yourself and your company up yet to help spread the word and message?

For reference, just shared this article on LinkedIn as well. Nicely done and kudos!

This is one of the most amazing stories I read so far. Thanks for sharing, Shadeed. And welcome, and welcome, to the open source community.

amazing stories , thanks for the open source community to share best article.

Thank you for your moving story. You are truly an inspiration. I wish you much continued success in all your endeavors. I am sure that your story will help others that are currently incarcerated by offering them a glimmer of hope and a path to take.

Did you learn to programing in prison? Well that's enough to motivate me.!!

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.