Recently released inmates are learning the digital skills needed to re-enter their communities, thanks to a recent partnership between two Charlottesville nonprofits.
Late last year, Offender Aid and Restoration — which helps people in Central Virginia who have been imprisoned — and We Code Too — an initiative to teach technology skills to people of color — began developing a digital skills class for those leaving incarceration to learn what they need to merge back into the community.
The program covers everything from Microsoft Office to coding with the hope of making it easier for participants to learn the skills they need to exist and thrive in an increasingly digital world, said Gary Spry, a senior pretrial officer for OAR.
“They will still face barriers, but we hope we can close the digital divide some,” he said.
On Monday, the first three students graduated from the initial eight-week program, but will continue meeting regularly to further develop their skills.
One of the graduates, Ferris Brown, was released late last year after spending the last 35 years in prison. In the time he was behind bars, technology has changed entirely, he said, and he found himself in a world he no longer recognized.
Without the experience and skills to use a computer, Brown said he had a difficult time finding a job or housing. However, after the eight weeks of training, Brown said he’s been able to make major strides.
“Once you understand certain things, it gets easier and easier,” he said. “I look forward to continuing on so I can get to a place where I’m comfortable.”
Wes Bellamy, director of We Code Too and a Charlottesville city councilor, said the need for the class was first brought to his attention at a City Council meeting in November.
“We live in a digital world and when you think of someone who has been incarnated for several years or has never been taught these digital skills, they can be considered to be behind when it comes to job employment, housing and a wide variety of other things,” he said. “We want to close that digital divide.”
At a community meeting held by the council in November about reducing recidivism of incarcerated citizens and supporting their re-entry to the community, Nadine Brooks, an employment specialist for OAR, spoke about the barrier a lack of digital skills adds to those trying to re-enter society.
“I often have people like Ferris, who would talk about how they were locked up for a very long time and one of the things they’re struggling with is learning computer skills,” she said after Monday’s graduation ceremony.
Following the November meeting, Bellamy reached out to OAR and together they worked out a plan for a multi-week class to help lessen the barriers facing those recently released from incarceration.
Using laptops sponsored by Red Light Management, program leaders started out teaching the basics, such as email, and have been working up to basic coding, Bellamy said. Though their first class was small, Bellamy said he hopes it will expand soon.
“It’s really been a gem to see these specific individuals from this segment of the community population get a win,” he said.