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Coding their way out of crime

Coding their way out of crime

A new initiative is trying to turn around South Africa’s dire reoffending rate by teaching prison inmates to code. 

South Africa has the biggest prison population in Africa – at around 115,000 according to the latest figures – with more people entering prison than leaving it every day.

The country also suffers from a high reoffending rate, but a new non-profit initiative is attempting to turn this around. By working with those who have committed economic crimes, Brothers for All looks to harness offenders’ skills by teaching them to code, giving them the training to succeed once they return to the outside world.

Brothers for All is an offshoot of fellow non-profit Mothers for All, which supports orphans and vulnerable children. The initiative was established in October last year, training students in new skills in a bid to crack down on poverty and crime.

In April this year, it was given permission to run coding courses in all 42 prisons in the Western Cape, and its first project is under way at the Worcester Male and Worcester Female Correctional Centres.

The driving force behind the project is 32-year-old Sihle Tshabalala, who knows all about the damaging effects that poverty and crime can have on the life of a young person in South Africa’s townships. After leaving school at 16, Tshabalala began committing robberies and cash-in-transit heists. Aged 19, he was arrested, and spent the next 11 years in jail.

After being released in February 2013, Tshabalala felt he needed to do something to prevent himself from falling back into the same old cycle. A self-taught coder, he came up with the idea that teaching prisoners and former inmates to code could help them establish businesses and prevent them from reoffending.  

“I had just the kind of determination you need in the experimental and uncertain early stages of an ambitious startup and when learning brand-new skills, so through that Brothers for All was set up,” he says.

Outside the prisons, the initiative has been a success so far, with over 170 registered students and 30 computers. Tshabalala says the centre is open seven days a week and “always buzzing”. But it is Brothers for All’s work in the prisons themselves that truly excites him.

“This is a world first: ex-offenders teaching a mixed group of male and female offenders how to code,” says Tshabalala. “We use aspirational technology skills to do this.”

Coding, he says, is the perfect skill to teach inmates for a number of reasons. “We had to look at skills that one can learn outside the classroom settings, that are able to, and in a position to, compete with the lure of crime that is so strong in my community,” he says.

“The skill set needs to be able to provide jobs, and so coding ticked all the boxes. In the Western Cape alone, there are over 23,000 unfilled programming posts, and what is good about coding is that you don’t need to go out and seek employment. Work finds you.”

Brothers for All students learn a combination of different coding languages, with the skills acquired allowing them to build websites and apps, and work in database management, amongst other things. It is an innovative way of attempting to tackle a huge problem in South Africa.

The costs of having the continent’s highest prison population are astronomical. It costs the government an estimated ZAR900,000 ($75,000) to incarcerate one prisoner for 10 years. And even once these prisoners are released, the likelihood is they will soon be back in jail. Reoffending rates stand at more than 80%.

Understandably given these dramatic figures, Tshabalala believed that the rehabilitation system was broken, and set up Brothers for All to try a new approach.

Life hacks

Aside from the cost savings, he believes South Africa stands to benefit in other ways from empowering offenders with coding skills.

“I always tell people that if you are looking for people that will reduce the unemployment rate in this country, here you have them,” he says.

“A majority of prisoners currently incarcerated in South African prisons are in prison for economic crimes. It is estimated to be over 54%. This clearly shows that if you are looking for entrepreneurs, you have them inside, as these guys know how to hustle and they are also not scared to take risks in life.”

Unfortunately for Tshabalala, this is not an argument that has been convincing at the national government level just yet, with the right to run classes in Western Cape prisons the only concession made to Brothers for All so far.

“Even though we are addressing issues and challenges that masses of South Africans are faced with, such as unemployment, crime, poverty and rehabilitation, we don’t get any support whatsoever from the South African government,” says Tshabalala.

Donors, including the likes of Naspers, Microsoft BizSpark, Hivos and the Mac Aids Fund have come to the organisation’s aid, but Tshabalala said Brothers for All still needs more cash if it is to really have an impact and expand the initiative to other prisons.

“We need funding for our expansion and scaling of the initiative. Laptops – whether second-hand or new – are needed because we teach 170 students with only 30 computers. Every time we go to prison, we take 10, but this is a challenge. If we really want these prisoners to be good at coding then they should have access to the equipment on daily basis,” he says.

“We also need startups and companies to shadow or to offer paid internships for the graduates. This will give them industry experience and exposure, so I would greatly appreciate mentors who also would make time available for training sessions and advice.”

Tshabalala is hoping to make the initiative self-sustaining in the long run too, however, by using tech skills to allow the organisation to support itself. Brothers for All runs an income-generation-skills project, turning waste paper into handcrafted jewellery, while it is also launching an app factory.

“Brothers for All will be building a crime prevention app, leveraging our own experiences on the best practices to fight crime,” says Tshabalala.

Most of all though, he explains, the organisation needs assistance in tackling what is a huge problem.

“We need more partners to come on board, from private to government. It is crucial if we want to change our communities for the better, because we, as a country, are sitting on a ticking time bomb if we don’t train and get our people into jobs.”

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Written by Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson is a tech and business journalist based in South Africa . A UK-trained reporter, he is committed to the dream of African development through technology. Tom is looking to present a picture of the "real" Africa tech scene in order to aid better understanding of how it can be used to develop Africa economically and socially.

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