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Code4000 joins Catch22 – an interview with Programmes Director Jim Taylor

The Code4000 team is an impressive initiative which trains people in prison to learn to code – from the basics, right through to becoming full-stack software engineers – and then help place them into jobs.

Code4000’s impact is backed up by research: compared to a national reoffending rate of 46%, none of Code4000 graduates has reoffended. This week the Code4000 team join the Justice hub at Catch22, furthering both organisations’ mission to reduce reoffending rates, and improve employability and life outcomes for prison leavers.

Welcoming the Code4000 team to the Catch22 family, we interview Programmes Director Jim Taylor about Code4000’s impact and their plans for the future.

Can you start by telling our readers a bit more about Code4000 and how it all started? 

It was founder Michael Taylor who was inspired by both The Last Mile in the US, and by the work of Duane Jackson – a prison leaver who became an entrepreneur in tech and wrote the book 4000 Days on his experience leaving prison – which triggered him to launch Code4000 in 2016.

Michael approached HMP Humber, with the support of the Ministry of Justice, to establish the first computer programming workshop within a prison. We’ve since expanded into HMP Holme House and HMP Wandsworth. In a nutshell, we teach computer programming – participants start with building web pages before working towards becoming full-stack software developers.

When it’s time for a participant to leave prison, we help them find a job back in the community – one that is going to use their much-needed skills. And it’s working. We’re building trust and breaking down the barriers to hiring ex-offenders – we’ve even got some graduates working for banks, such as Lloyds and Metro.   

Other than coding, do you think Code4000 is developing other work-ready skills? 

Not every graduate goes into coding – but learning the basics of coding has been transformative for them. Even just progressing through the course at whatever pace, can build self-esteem. 

There is an expectation for all participants that they mentor newer members too. We consistently see our trainees develop self-reliance, adaptability, as well as coding skills. 

The manager of one of our graduates, who now works for a bank, recently told us that their Code4000 employee has outshone the rest of the team during the lockdowns – in terms of his comfort with working from home, his resilience, and his adaptability – it’s likely because of the highly unusual training experience he had, learning the job while in prison!

How does your training operate? Is it anything like a coding boot camp? 

We start each day with real-life work structures, such as morning stand-ups, and encouraging peer support. This is where participants talk through coding challenges before attempting to solve the issue. 

We are not highly selective about who joins our workshops either. We take referrals from key workers in the prison or other workshop participants. There might be some selection criteria for certain employers – for example, a bank might not take on someone with a fraud conviction – but all we want in our workshops is driven prisoners, with a desire and interest in coding. We just need them willing to problem-solve and up for working with fellow participants – much like a real working environment.

Do you think learning to code at a young age could impact youth offending rates?

The challenge with working with offenders aged 15, 16, is – how do you sell to them a different life? How do you sell different choices? If all you can offer is a warehouse job, that young person can sell drugs on their bike and make a lot more money. But coding jobs will sell – the money is often outstanding, you’re always learning, always developing, and the working conditions are great. 

Computer programming is an art – you can bring your identity to coding and it can have a transformational impact. Coding could have the same impact as art and sports programmes on young people, if you attract them early enough – it is something we should be teaching young people. In terms of a diversionary activity, I think it’s got a lot of legs. 

Finally, we’re talking today because Code4000 is now part of the Catch22 family. Can you tell us a bit more about why you chose to join Catch22 and where you hope it’ll take Code4000? 

I’ve seen a lot of stuff done in prisons and I’ve seen it done well – but I’ve never quite seen guys as motivated as they are on the Code4000 programme. We have got an excellent service and we deliver it well.

But looking at Catch22, we’re thinking about the links Catch22 has with employers and the number of contacts Catch22 have in this area – all while we’ve got a lot of keen, dedicated, and well-trained graduates, who are determined to make a success in their life. For me, how can that not work?

We also think being part of a large organisation will support us in terms of having clout further up the ladder – to share our views, our frustrations, and what is stopping us from doing a better job than we are already doing. And in terms of expansion, we are small and we are efficient, but the logistical support of being part of a large organisation like Catch22 means that we’ll have the help, the support, and the back-up, so that if another prison wanted us to join them next month, we could confidently say ‘we can do this!’