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Engineering Pathways for Systemic Change – What Happens When You Apply Coding Principles to Social Issues?

Jason Jones The Last Mile

In this talk, Jason will connect coding principles to social issues. You will learn how to leverage your knowledge of architecting and designing models for systems, and apply your experience to social issues that plague our country. Jason will bridge his professional experience in tech with those of the systems impacting people in our communities.

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Jason Jones

Jason Jones, TLM graduate, Software Engineer and Remote Instruction Manager for The Last Mile, is an experienced web developer and passionate about working with system impacted youth that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is determined to create systemic change for those who share his lived experiences, and is hopeful that in doing so it will change the world. #createChange

(soothing music) - Hello. My name is Jason Jones. At eight years old, I was taken away from my mother and placed into the foster care system only to be passed around from system to system. Until I entered the prison system. I ended up serving 13 and a half years before I paroled September 25th, 2018. Now in 2014, while I was still incarcerated, I was introduced to computer coding, and it wasn't until then that I truly understood how much these flawed outdated systems impacted my life, my experience, and my perspective on the world. Now, my upbringing wasn't too different than other young black males, which consisted of environment filled with violence, drugs, poverty, and death. So every system I entered treated me just like a product of my environment. So much though, that I internalized it and became just that. Now there are multiple systems that contribute not only to the molding of the mindsets of these environments, but the conditions as well. However, I want to take a reverse engineering approach and focus on one specific system. The prison system, you know, keep it simple because when you developing a solution, you want a minimum viable product before you start to scale. Also, I believe the solution. I am presenting today can be applied to other systems as well.

 Let's look at the data. The fact is right now, the United States makes up about 4% of the world's population yet has nearly 25% of the world's prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700%. 2.3 million people are incarcerated today for outpatient population growth and crime. Now, in order to understand how did we get here? We must understand how laws are designed and implemented. If we look at laws the same way engineers look at dependencies, then it starts to make more sense. Let's take the three strike law. For example, the idea behind the three strike law was to be somewhat like baseball, where after person's third felony conviction, they would get a mandatory 25 to life sentence. The motivation behind the three strike's law was after two kids in two different incidents were tragically murdered by individuals that had a prior record. Rightfully so the fathers that tragically lost their kids to violence, demanded justice, and there was an attempt to provide justice. So those families can start to heal. However, when emotions are involved, it is hard to think logically. And what resulted in the draft of the three strike law was legislation taking a junior engineer approach. And as a result, it did not account for edge cases and people were getting mandatory 25 to life sentences for stealing a backpack, a candy bar or pizza, legislatures just jumped in and started coding because they needed a real time solution. And that's exactly what they delivered. The three strikes Law was not scalable nor was it efficient. 

Now, if legislation would have taken a more senior approach, they would have accounted for edge cases. And produced more clear documentation so that when different people read the law, they will have a common understanding and would have understood the logic behind it. And as they built out justice, they would have accounted for scalability and optimization. They would have analyzed goals, the challenges expected amount of traffic, different roles, different capabilities, use cases, flow diagrams. Most of all, they would have proposed several different ways of implementing the law with their pros and cons. That a penal system is full of laws that have been architected and design with a junior engineer approach. Which is just one of the reasons why we are the world leaders of incarceration. The other reason is prison is designed to maintain the status quo. When I first went to prison, there was nothing to disrupt my mindset or how I saw the world.. No educational programs, no self-help programs, nothing. I believe it wasn't until about my fifth year into my sentence that I received the opportunity to take a parenting class. 

Yes, now the prison system is attempting to rebrand themselves and transition from a punitive system into a more rehabilitative system and offer more programs. However, when you build a system that is designed for punitive outcomes, you also build the culture that comes with it. Think about it. When Facebook came Facebook official. With Instagram, came Instafamous and now more modernly, YouTube creating a culture of influencers and Tiktok creating a culture of dance. So when the same punitive measure outcomes create a culture, a punitive mindset, which is why prison in prison. You can get a disciplinary infraction called a 115, which results in more time, you serve for something as small as or humane as taking a shower two days in a row. So with this transition into a more rehabilitative mindset or system needs to come, the rehabilitative mindset and culture. There are nonprofits that offer this rehabilitative mindset and culture. However, they mostly exist in liberal areas in California. Yet most prisons are located in conservative, rural areas. If nothing is being introduced to disrupt the mindset and culture, then how can one expect different outcomes? I see these nonprofits similar to feature flags, where you are able to introduce something new collect data and build out for different outcomes. Recidivism in California is around 65%. And if we apply our understanding of recursion to this problem, then it's easier to see how vital these nonprofits really are. We need to factor something new into this recursive function defined as recidivism in order to expect different outcomes. If not, then we are insane by definition. Now I worked for the same nonprofit that taught me coding while I was incarcerated. It's called The Last Mile and its founders created an alternative system to have alternative outcomes. They did their research of current outcomes in order to understand the entry point of disruption. 

The prison system in California has a $12 billion annual budget with close to 69,000 employees. And over the last 10 years has little over a 50% recidivism rate, on average. The last mile is a nonprofit.. With around 25 employees over half of our staff is formerly incarcerated. And in the same 10-year span has a 0% recidivism rate. Not to mention in one year we scaled to four additional States because we understood how to leverage technology to disrupt old problematic thinking so that we are able to get the outcomes we expect. We know how to collect smart data to form new paths, simple as that. Oh yeah. And our learners are learning to cope without access to the internet. See technology allows people to be more than what their current environment, current conditions or stereotypes say they are, but it's still a piece missing before we can fully refactor this system. What happens after prison? Well, unfortunately, we live in a society that has adopted the same punitive mindset and culture that prison has when it comes to hiring. The stigma, having a background, often disqualify someone that is fully capable of doing the work. We have allowed the media TV shows and punitive narratives to form us that orange is the new black so much so that oftentimes like other communities of people system impacted people are not included in the discussion of diversity in the tech industry. 

In order to truly diversify tech, we need to see beyond cosmetic appearance and create pathways for professional growth and opportunities for those that we may not understand or share their experience. If we do that, the environments I come from will start to look a lot different because opportunity will look a lot different. It won't just be limited to sports and entertainment. If we truly want an equitable society, then we need to provide resources and access to those closest to the problem, because there are also closest to the solution. And it starts with replacing the school to prison pipeline with a school to Silicon Valley pipeline. Tech companies and leaders intake need to be at the forefront of redesigning the systems that are in place in our country. Who better to approach systemic issues, than those whose profession is architecting and designing systems for predictable outcomes. Now, if you want to be part of refactoring, our current systems that are in place, you can do three things right now. One, email us at reentry@thelastmile.org with a job opportunity for one of our returning citizens. Two, donate to The Last Mile.. So we're able to continue to disrupt this punitive mindset that exists today. And three, become a partner with the next chapter. It's a program where you can be a partner in a company that creates pathways for engineers with lived experience of incarceration to join your team. And you can contact them at infoatthenextchapterproject.org Right now, we live in a world where some of our biggest dreamers are the furthest away from access. Let's change that. Let's start engineering pathways for systemic change. Thank you. (soothing music)