Learning to Code
Tell us a bit about your background, and how you became a developer.
Three months ago I was released from prison. I served seventeen years for murder. A lot of it had to do with drugs and alcohol for me—drug addiction, drug dealing, and just a messed-up mindset, really. When I got convicted, I made a decision to get clean and sober, and try to do everything in my power to turn my life around.
I fell in love with it. I felt like it really fit me, and that it was something I could see myself doing after prison. I felt really lucky to get that opportunity while I was inside.
Were you sent to San Quentin originally, or did you move there?
I spent the last ten years of my incarceration there. When you first get incarcerated and you’re young and you have a lot of time left in your sentence, you usually go to higher-security institutions. A lot more violence, a lot more lockdowns. There’s less programs, and more time in the cell. If you stay out of trouble, then you can go to lower-security institutions that have more educational opportunities, more self-help classes, things like that.
San Quentin was a real blessing, because out of the thirty-four state prisons in California, it’s the one with the most programs and the most outside volunteers that come in. So it was a good place to keep learning and grow as a person.
What were some of the other activities you were involved in at San Quentin, besides The Last Mile?
There’s a tennis team at San Quentin, believe it or not. That was the first prison I was at that had a tennis court, and I quickly became addicted to that.
Did you play doubles or singles?
It was mainly doubles, but singles depending on how many people showed up. There was only one court, so you had to win to stay on the court. The winners stay on the court, and the losers go to the end of the line, so it really paid to win. A big part of my sobriety has been health and fitness.
What was your experience with technology like before you got into prison?
Before prison, I think the biggest thing going was Motorola flip phones and America Online. That was where it cut off for me in 2000. Computers inside prison are almost taboo. They don’t let guys on computers. You don’t have access to them. So, until The Last Mile brought the coding program inside, I wasn’t on computers. And as long as I was in prison, I never had access to mobile phones or Facebook. You know, I saw that stuff on TV or read about it on magazines, but I didn’t get my first interaction until I got out just a few months ago.
I’m assuming that The Last Mile gave you guys access to computers, but not internet. Could you describe the setup?
No internet at all. They had a computer lab that we went into, four days a week, Monday through Thursday, from 6:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. It was work, but it was also learning. If most of the guys had a choice between hanging out in the yard and the computer lab, they would much rather be in the lab.
Without internet, all we had were textbooks, but we could bring them back to the cell. If you were thinking about how to solve a computer problem, you had to write it all out by hand—which I think was a great exercise, figuring stuff out without the computer. I usually had a computer book with me everywhere I went.
In prison, it seems like everywhere you go, there’s a line where you’re waiting for something. If you go to medical, for example, you’re waiting. So it was a great chance to read and study, and use that time wisely.
When you were in the computer lab four days a week, would the instructor be teaching for most of that time? What was the structure?
I was in the first class. They partnered with Hack Reactor, so we had a lot of their curriculum, although I think they chopped it up a bit. We would plan two to three-day sprints and then try to complete them.
But our instructor, he wasn’t a coder either. So he was learning as we were learning. We learned from books, or from each other. There was no internet, so there was no asking Google or Stack Overflow, or anything like that.
Did you guys do any pair programming?
We did. Which is interesting, because prison, especially in California, is mostly segregated. You only cell with guys of your own race. And if you go in the chow hall, there’s different sections by race.
Is that self-selecting? Or is it encouraged by the prison?
It’s pretty much self-imposed. I think as far as who you cell with, the prison knows it’s going to be safer if you just cell by race. But in the yard, you get to choose where you want to go, and everyone groups up by race—especially in the higher-security institutions.
When I got to San Quentin, I found those in-house politics weren’t as strict. I could play on the same tennis team with people of other races. That was a lot better for me, because that wasn’t the way I was raised. But when you come into an environment and everything is segregated, you’re kind of like, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
When pair programming, we paired with people from other races. There was no racial division, and I thought that was good, because we could figure stuff out better together than we could if we were segregated.
But the pair programming was very difficult for guys in prison. I don’t know how difficult it is for someone on the outside.
It’s still hard. I do it every day.
You always want to be the one to take over. Like, who’s going to be the driver? Who’s going to be the navigator? I always wanted to drive.
How many other guys were in your class?
We started with eighteen, and I think twelve graduated. When it first started, it was only going to be one six-month program. Now they have a six-month track one, a six-month track two, and something called a joint venture, where guys are getting paid to work on projects for outside companies.
Did you participate in that?
I did. I was hired by them for my last six months in prison. And we did a project—not a paid project—for Airbnb. It was a social media dashboard that went to Facebook and Twitter, and pulled back their follower counts, page likes, and things like that. They said they used to have an intern that would log in to all the different sites and then write down the numbers. So we automated the process.
What was that product development cycle like? It sounds like you had some contact with Airbnb, figuring out what their needs were. How did you figure out what you were going to build?
We had a teacher named Hans, who started out as a volunteer with The Last Mile. But he took such an interest in the project that he agreed to get hired on. I don’t think we ever talked to Airbnb directly about what we were going to build. Hans just came in with an idea—and we didn’t even know if we could do it. I mean, we had to learn the OAuth flow. Doing that through offline tutorials, and not being able to test it online, was super tough.
What did you do if you were stuck on something outside of class? No one was there to help. Could you all work through it together? What was that problem-solving like?
We would just have to theorize about things and maybe write them down. Some of the guys actually had their own study sessions in the gym. They would meet, draw stuff out on paper, and figure it out that way. And then hope there wasn’t a lockdown, so they could get back to the computer and test it to see if it worked.
Did lockdowns happen frequently?
There’s a lockdown right now. I would say it happens two or three times a year. You just never know when—or for what. This time they said one of the officers lost a bullet. I call it the magic bullet because it seems to happen about once a year. All of a sudden a bullet is missing, and everybody needs to be locked down.
Did you do any paid work on the inside? It sounds like you were doing work for clients like Airbnb. Did you ever get paid?
Not by Airbnb. But I was paid to work for other clients, sixteen dollars an hour.
How does that compare to pay for other jobs inside prison?
Oh my God, it was probably sixteen times the next highest paid job.
What is the next highest paying job?
Probably working for the furniture factory. They have a prison industry furniture factory that makes furniture for institutions throughout the state. And I think that the lead man position there is ninety-five cents an hour.
Was it competitive to get into those coding slots as a result?
It was really difficult. A lot of guys wanted to get in there.
Did you have to take a test to get into The Last Mile program?
Yeah. There was an application and an interview process.
I feel really lucky to have gotten that job on the inside. I was able to save a little bit of money. The money you make in there, they split it into five categories. One fifth goes to a victims restitution fund, one fifth goes to room and board, one fifth goes into a bank account, one fifth you can send to your family, and one fifth you can have on your prison account, to use in the store when you’re on the inside.
Is that split consistent for everyone, or just for you?
No, just for the guys who are a part of the joint venture program. Had I not been in that program, I wouldn’t have been able to save money for when I got out. The state gives you $200 when you get paroled. And that’s what you have to survive on. It’s not much.
Especially in the Bay Area.
Right? They’re making a lot of these guys come to San Francisco to these transitional houses, and they stay there for six months. But then where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to afford to live?
Life on the Outside
Are you living in the city now?
I’m living in a transitional house in Concord. It’s a four-bedroom house. There’s currently six guys living there. There’s one more guy moving in tonight. He actually had to go through immigration when he got out of San Quentin. And they just released him from ICE. He’s coming tonight—I can’t wait to see him.
What has your reentry been like? Coding in San Francisco is one of the most in-demand skills. What has that been like for you?
That’s part of the reason why I paroled in the Bay Area rather than going back to LA, where I used to live. I figured I could use my skills here in the Bay Area.
My reception back into the world has been amazing so far, in terms of family support, job support, and housing support. I know that’s not the case for everybody. But I feel like a lot of the work that I did on the inside set me up for what’s happening now. It’s way beyond my own expectations. I’ve been really humbled and grateful. I mean, it was a long journey inside. There was a lot of growing up going on.
So for me, personally, the transition has been good. I’m super excited about everything that’s going on with the internet, technology, and mobile apps. I’m addicted to Spotify. I can’t believe they give you all this music.
I feel like I’ve been really busy, just in general. After being down for so long, when I come out I want to say yes to everything. I’ve got a friend, she goes, “You want to go do SoulCycle?” I’m like, “What is that?” So we’re doing SoulCycle tomorrow.
What’s the technology you’ve been most excited about?
I think technology is a double-edged sword. I mean, just the way everybody is so connected and how everything is integrated with each other. I just learned about Google Calendar last week. The way that connects you—it gives me a notification that says, “Check out Xiaowei’s LinkedIn page.” It’s helping me at every step.
Do you have a Facebook account?
Do you have any other social media accounts?
LinkedIn. Instagram, but I haven’t figured it out yet. I guess you just take pictures, but I’m not sure.
Yeah. That’s it.
And I did a lot of writing on Quora. While we were on the inside, The Last Mile had us write responses. We’d actually write them out and then somebody on the outside uploaded all the content. We’d hear about our posts getting up-voted or down-voted. But when I got out and saw my own account—and how many people were following me on there and asking me questions—it was kind of cool. I’ve been able to do it in real time now.
Do you know anyone else who is now outside of prison who went through the program?
Yeah. The Last Mile has been kind of like a family. We all keep track of each other and try to support each other.
Often software companies will run background checks for potential employment even if it’s not clear why they need them. I’m curious if that’s a problem that you’ve seen, and if there any particular barriers to employment that folks who have graduated from the program are experiencing?
I’ve heard about it. One friend from The Last Mile went through the Hack Reactor program on the outside and graduated just recently, about a month or two ago. Now they have him filling out the applications and going through the tech interviews and things like that. He told me that with some of the applications, once they find out about his criminal history, his application gets automatically kicked to the side. He’s saying he’s getting excluded from some opportunities because of his record.
We were told that if you know how to code, your record isn’t going to be that much of an issue just because the job demand is so high here. I haven’t started applying yet.
Did you start The Last Mile knowing when your release date was?
I was sentenced to sixteen years to life. What that means is that you do sixteen years and then you start going in front of a parole board. The parole board wants to see you take responsibility for your crime. They want to see how you’ve used your time in prison. They want to know what kind of support network you’re going to have in place to keep you from re-offending when you do get out.
It’s really hard for lifers to get found suitable for release. And it should be, I think. Maybe not as strict as it has been in the past—and the door is opening up a little more every day, especially with Jerry Brown in office. But I understand the parole board commissioners have a tough job to do. I went to my first parole board hearing in 2015 and I felt like I had done everything right—I’ve gone through The Last Mile, I was in the coding program, and they still said no. They said we want some more, to make sure that you have a deeper insight into why you committed your crime.
When I went back, I was able to talk about it a little bit more in depth. I think I knew all the answers the first time, but going into that setting there’s a lot of pressure, so maybe everything doesn’t come out right—you know, these people really have your life in their hands.
I was found suitable. But even then when you get found suitable, it’s not like you get released. You have to go through a five-month review process where they check over the record of your hearing and then the governor actually gets the last say-so—yes or no. I didn’t know until the end of April when I was going to be released.
And how long ago were you released?
May the 4th, 2017. That was Star Wars Day. “May the fourth be with you.” I’ll never forget it, for a lot of reasons.
The Last Mile says they help prevent people from going back to prison because their graduates find jobs after they’re released. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Yeah, so far The Last Mile has a perfect record in terms of recidivism. Nobody that’s gone through the program has gone back to prison. I think the support network and going to work and having marketable skills makes a huge difference to a guy getting out of prison. They need a safe place to live. They need a job. They need to be able to support themselves. They need resources because limited resources lead to crime, in my opinion.
If we want to address recidivism, we need to give people a chance.
I think so too. They spend so much on keeping people in prison, it just seems like some of that money could be diverted into helping guys stay out of prison.
You know, guys inside prison aren’t how they’re portrayed on TV and in movies. You should see what’s going on in San Quentin in terms of education and rehabilitation. It’s not being offered by the state—it’s being done by outside volunteers. People from the community are coming into San Quentin and sharing knowledge and the guys in there are soaking it up like sponges.
There’s a Shakespeare program on the inside. There’s a radio show. There’s a newspaper. There’s a lot of men really working on themselves and preparing to go back out to the community and become productive citizens. If people understood that, they might be willing to give these men a second chance.