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Marcellino Ornelas had been in and out of juvenile hall seven times by the time he finally went to prison at the age of 19 for assault with a firearm. He’d already been kicked out of high school and was working, he says, as the “local drug dealer,” with a side gig at a Ross department store. In the past, every time he got out, he’d start dealing soon after.
“It was like, this is how I make money. This is who my friends are,” Ornelas says. “That always brought me back to the same situation.”
Now 22, Ornelas believes that pattern easily could have continued if it hadn’t been for a program he joined at San Quentin State Prison that taught inmates to code. Since 2014, a nonprofit called The Last Mile has taught coding and entrepreneurship classes inside San Quentin and other prisons in hopes of helping incarcerated people develop marketable skills for when they get out. It’s had plenty of success, graduating nearly 400 students over the last four years. It also recently launched a for-profit web development shop, where advanced students get paid about $16 an hour to work on real-world projects for paying clients.
But while the classes were fulfilling for students like Ornelas, they were also painstaking. Nearly every state across the country strictly prohibits internet usage. That means that Ornelas and his fellow students had no way to access the site that’s like oxygen for coders around the world: Google.
So last year, armed with their newfound skills, Ornelas and three of his classmates decided to build their own search engine for the inside. They called it JOLT, an acronym for the first letter of each of their last names. Now, The Last Mile has deployed JOLT in six prisons, where it’s helping enhance a program that Ornelas insists has already changed the course of his life.
In order to get The Last Mile’s coding courses up and running to begin with, staffers essentially had to recreate the internet inside the prison’s high barbed-wire walls. They set up their own servers, and loaded them up with digitized textbooks, video lectures, and relevant offline Wikipedia entries. This library wasn’t comprehensive—only coursework was allowed—but it was just enough to teach students the basics.
“We were building a small pond to mimic a big ocean,” says Dan Wheeler, the program’s lead instructor and a former Dropbox engineer. “You can still learn the basics of swimming.”
But much like the pre-Google internet of the 1990s, there was no easy way to navigate the entire body of material Wheeler and others were building, requiring students to spend precious class time scrolling through the database to find what they were looking for. If The Last Mile really wanted to set students up for success outside of prison, Wheeler knew they’d need to be as adept at research as they were at any given coding language. “In most coding jobs, knowing how to do research is just a daily need,” Wheeler says.
In 2017, Wheeler launched a new course for advanced students, based on a class he took as a computer science student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For half of the duration of the class, students would team up to work on an open-ended project. The idea for JOLT arose out of the students’ own needs, says John Levin, one of the members of the team.
“We were wasting a lot of our time just trying to find the right resource so we could learn what we wanted to learn,” says Levin, a former IT professional who has been serving a life sentence since 2013.
Levin was the only member of the four-person team with prior tech experience. Jason Jones, who entered prison 13 years ago, has never owned a gadget more modern than an early-aughts Sprint flip phone with custom ringtones. “I felt like a foreigner,” he says of those early coding classes. “I was getting things to work, and I didn’t know why it was working.”
‘We were building a small pond to mimic a big ocean.’
Dan Wheeler, The Last mile
Together, Levin and Jones worked with Ornelas, a fourth team member named Charlie Thao, and Wheeler to develop what is essentially a simple web crawler for all of the educational material contained on the San Quentin servers. Wheeler urged the guys to rely on open source tools like Apache Solr, a search platform. The four men divided the labor just as they would in at any tech startup, with two working on front-end development and two on the back end. Wheeler installed new software and educational materials as the students requested it, but for the most part, he says, they did all the coding work themselves.
“They learned the magic of open source” he says. “You can stand on the shoulders of giants.”
JOLT now contains questions and answers from Stack Overflow. It can search the contents of textbooks, just like Google Books. It can pull relevant videos and images and organize them all in a Google-esque interface. And it automatically updates as Wheeler puts new content in the system. “If I add a new textbook to our servers, within 15 minutes it’ll be indexed,” he says.
Once it was up and running, the team got a chance to demo JOLT for some Google employees who have connections to The Last Mile. “It’s cool to get the thumbs up from Google,” says Chris Redlitz, a venture capitalist and co-founder of The Last Mile.
JOLT is a prime example, Redlitz says, of what The Last Mile aspires to achieve. By giving incarcerated people tangible tech skills they can show off to the outside world, Redlitz hopes to better prepare them for what can be an unimaginably difficult adjustment. But JOLT takes that idea even further. It’s a tool that allowed the four team members to demonstrate their abilities, but it’s also helping other inmates develop skills of their own. When it launched in January of 2018 inside San Quentin, the system received about 700 queries a month. Today, it fields more than 4,000 queries a month, all from people taking these courses inside prisons.
“This program means so much to myself, and I’m sure it means a lot to all the men who are in it,” says Levin. “Jolt was a way to give back.”
For Ornelas, the experience of working on JOLT helped him visualize an entirely new path for himself. “I felt like it wasn’t just work,” he says. “I was creating things people would actually use.”
When he got out of San Quentin a month ago, Ornelas says the transition wasn’t easy. Letting his guard down after years spent watching his back was especially tough. But the skills he picked up and the people he met through The Last Mile, he says, helped ease his re-entry. Shortly after leaving prison, he enrolled in a web development course at General Assembly and has since begun working for a startup in San Mateo. He’s living with his father in the same town that sucked him into a dangerous cycle so many times before. The difference this time, he says, is that going back to his old way of life no longer felt like his only option, or even an option at all.