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Computer screen with Learn Coding command
Illustration by Steve Worthington

I received my first computer in 1989. It was a Kaypro II and came with a game that entertained my 9-year-old imagination. 

Day after day, I fed one of my 16 floppy disks into the computer slot, flipped down the switch lock and waited for the command prompt to come up in pale yellow writing on the sickly green screen. Then I explored caves and caverns, battled monsters and demons, and collected a multitude of treasures. 

Although the name of the game has been lost to the fog of time and memory, I remember clearly that if I took the wrong path or made a bad decision, all I had to do was put in the previous disk and I would get a chance to make a different choice. 

In prison I have lived in a technology drought for two decades. I am not the only one. A 2020 University of Kansas study of 75 women recently released from prison found that a lack of relevant skills was one of the main reasons they were not using the internet. “Lack of self-confidence or self-efficacy in learning technology emerged as an important theme,” the authors wrote in an article published in 2022 in the journal New Media & Society.

But steps are being taken to change that. 

Four years ago, I was one of five lucky women selected to train as peer facilitators in the first cohort of Persevere, a competitive one-year programming course that trains us to be full-stack developers in the hopes of reducing generational incarceration. 

Persevere has 11 classes in prisons in Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia and Virginia, with more coming soon. My class was the first. One of the best things about this program is that its founder is formerly incarcerated and classes are at times taught by previously incarcerated individuals who understand our challenges firsthand. 

As a student or student peer facilitator, we work on a series of lessons and projects to earn certificates in subjects such as JavaScript, web design, data structures and information security. Three certificates lead to a certification as a front-end developer or back-end developer. Once we show a completion score of 75% or higher and finish a capstone project, we can earn a full-stack developer certification. 

Classes were canceled because of the pandemic for a year, and since the program resumed instruction is mostly over Google Meet. The instructor periodically visits in person. 

After graduating with honors as a full-stack developer, I became a peer facilitator and I teach current students. I’ve built more than 50 applications. Of my initial cohort, I’m the only one still involved. Two were released, one was dropped from the program for disciplinary reasons, and one achieved her first certification and decided that coding wasn’t her calling. Not everyone has the same love of technology or urge to code that I do.

As a peer facilitator, I’m responsible for orienting new students, supporting the instructor, assisting struggling students and teaching occasional extra lessons if multiple students are experiencing the same challenge. Once a quarter, I create a challenge project with a prize. Prizes are usually deals I’ve worked out with other instructors, such as a free cosmetology service or a cooked meal made by the culinary arts program. 

I have encountered students with a natural aptitude and others who struggle. One of my students had a learning disability and another had previous experience. Both shined. 

Still, we’re not without our challenges. We use 32-bit computers running on Windows 7, an operating system that was released in 2009 and is no longer supported by Microsoft. We don’t have internet access. 

I have completed all six certificates available, but the last one was only about theory. The imposter syndrome looms close, but I’m also confident in my abilities. I have gained entrepreneurial and job-hunting skills and am currently gaining experience as an instructor. I have a solid understanding of coding. Because of this opportunity, I have built people skills, social skills and critical thinking skills. I have learned to diffuse situations, ignore irrelevance, resolve conflicts and solve problems.

By the time I am released, I expect to have more than 12 years of experience as a coding facilitator and more than 15 years as a developer. I am and will be surrounded by a lifetime network of front-end and back-end developers and computer engineers. I’ll also be able to take advantage of job services, mentorship, transitional housing, social service assistance and much more offered to participants of the program.

My hope for the future is that the technology drought will continue to shrink and access to the program’s full curriculum will expand. 

But no matter what happens, Persevere has shown me that I don’t have to be stuck in this cave called prison dragging around my past and fighting my monsters and demons. 

I may have lost freedoms, family, opportunities and life experiences, but I have gained more of the same in return. The most important thing I’ve learned from this program is to value everything, even mistakes, because mistakes are the treasures that let you get a hard reboot. I have learned how to play a new game like I used to do with my Kaypro.

C:\turn left>

You have turned down the wrong path. There is nowhere to go but forward unless you wish to end the game? Do you wish to move forward? 

C:\move forward>

There is no hope left. The past is gone and your dreams are dust. Do you wish to move forward? 

C:\move forward>

You arrive at an intersection. The path ahead goes farther into the dark. The path to the right looks familiar. What would you like to do? 

C:\turn right>

You found a treasure and see a light in the distance. What would you like to do? 

C:\move to the light>

You step out into a bright future. You look at your treasure and realize that you have opportunities now that you didn’t have before. You take a look over your shoulder back into the dark cave and mourn the losses before looking back at your treasure. There are now so many choices you can make. 

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Victoria A. Dennis is a writer incarcerated in Tennessee.