Coding their way out of crime: South Africa has a huge prison population and high reoffending rate, but a new initiative is trying to turn this around by teaching inmates to code.

Author:Jackson, Tom
Position:Focus
 
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South Africa has the biggest prison population in Africa--at around 115,000 according to the latest figures--with more people entering prison than leaving it every day.

The country also suffers from a high reoffending rate, but a new non-profit initiative is attempting to turn this around. By working with those who have committed economic crimes, Brothers for All looks to harness offenders' skills by teaching them to code, giving them the training to succeed once they return to the outside world.

Brothers for All is an offshoot of fellow non-profit Mothers for All, which supports orphans and vulnerable children. The initiative was established in October last year, training students in new skills in a bid to crack down on poverty and crime.

In April this year, it was given permission to run coding courses in all 42 prisons in the Western Cape, and its first project is under way at the Worcester Male and Worcester Female Correctional Centres.

The driving force behind the project is 32-year-old Sihle Tshabalala, who knows all about the damaging effects that poverty and crime can have on the life of a young person in South Africa's townships. After leaving school at 16, Tshabalala began committing robberies and cash-in-transit heists. Aged 19, he was arrested, and spent the next 11 years in jail.

After being released in February 2013, Tshabalala felt he needed to do something to prevent himself from falling back into the same old cycle. A self-taught coder, he came up with the idea that teaching prisoners and former inmates to code could help them establish businesses and prevent them from reoffending.

"I had just the kind of determination you need in the experimental and uncertain early stages of an ambitious startup and when learning brand-new skills, so through that Brothers for All was set up," he says.

Outside the prisons, the initiative has been a success so far, with over 170 registered students and 30 computers. Tshabalala says the centre is open seven days a week and "always buzzing". But it is Brothers for All's work in the prisons themselves that truly excites him.

"This is a world first: ex-offenders teaching a mixed group of male and female offenders how to code," says Tshabalala. "We use aspirational technology skills to do this."

Coding, he says, is the perfect skill to teach inmates for a number of reasons. "We had to look at skills that one can learn outside the classroom settings, that are able to, and in a position to...

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