Perspectives Education

Coding their way out of crime

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A new initiative is trying to turn around South Africa’s dire reoffending rate by teaching prison inmates to code. The initiative, Brothers for All, is an offshoot of fellow non-profit Mothers for All, which supports orphans and vulnerable children. The driving force behind the project is 32-year-old Sihle Tshabalala, who knows all about the damaging effects of poverty and crime, having spent 11 years in prison himself.

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. 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.

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.

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. hg