Beading and computer programming a way out of prison

Brothers for All uses former offenders to raise funds and teach computer coding to prisoners. Cash for the initiative is raised through making bead jewellery, which is then poured into programming classes at prisons in Western Cape.

 prison_coding_3_article Prisoners in Worcestor recently got a choice to register for a 12 month computer programming course. (Images: Facebook)

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Melissa Javan

What started as a way to keep himself busy in prison is now a skill Sihle Tshabalala teaches to generate an income; the cash is used to keep a business open that allows offenders to learn computer programming. In turn, the prisoners have a marketable skill when they get out of jail.

Tshabalala is a founder of the non-profitable social enterprise, Brothers for All. He took up beading while he was in prison and the skill taught him a few things, including an attention to detail. “I learned patience, persistence and precision,” he told Lead SA. “You know that if you make a mistake, you can rectify it.”

Lead SA is a private sector initiative that challenges South Africans to do the right thing every day and to counter the negative perceptions about the country.

After 11 years in prison, Tshabalala is now the national co-ordinator of Brothers for All. Together with his team, he makes jewellery out of beads which is sold. The income from this is used to run the initiative. One of its projects is to teach computer coding to young children and unemployed people in Langa, a township in Cape Town.

His motivation is an analogy he was once told, Tshabalala says. “This man asked me if I had one rand; he also had one rand. If we exchanged the rands, what I would have, he asked. I said I would have the same rand he gave me.”

“He then asked if I had an idea and he had an idea, and we exchanged our ideas, how many ideas would I have. I said two – my original idea and your idea.”

Tshabalala says he feels extremely proud and happy to be contributing to a safe society and job creation. “When I was in prison I read a quote that said: ‘If you are looking for a miracle in life and you can’t find one, then be that miracle for others.'”

 prison_coding_4_article Sihle Tshabalala made sure the skills he was taught in prison didn’t stay there – he now uses his beadwork skills to generate an income.

Brothers for All launched its coding project in the Worcester Male and Worcester Female Correctional Centres on 1 May.

It is an offshoot of Mothers for All, which was established in 2010 with an award-winning prisoner initiative called the Group of Hope.

The principal objective of Mothers for All is to provide income-generation projects and life skills training for the caregivers of children made vulnerable or orphaned by AIDS. “By giving caregivers support and training we enable the generation of a sustainable income, benefiting both the women and the children within their care,” reads the website.

“The women receive money for the products they are taught to make, which are sold both in Botswana and internationally.”

Mothers for All says their work in South African prisons and the community using the Group of Hope inmates and parolees has been steadily growing.

That early project enabled prisoners to change their lives through helping orphans in nearby impoverished communities. “We felt a new arm of the organisation was required to support this exciting direction.

“It [Brothers for All] now also focuses on personal development, behavioural change and making safer choices in general – safe on a personal level and safe for the community. Using the perpetrators of violence to become part of the solution is inspiring many people to get involved,” reads their website.

According to Brothers for All, it began by designing and delivering peer education programmes to cover HIV, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis in four prisons. “The work was highly successful with our results presented at XIX International Aids Conference in Washington in 2012 and the Durban Aids Conference in 2013. We also started an income generation project in the prison which has generated more than R100 000 to support local communities,” reads the organisation’s website.

“While working with prisoners trying to turn their lives around, it became clear that aspirational technology skills are the only scalable way to end the cycle of poverty and crime. So in 2014, Brothers for All focused on equipping offenders, ex-offenders and vulnerable youth with aspirational technology and entrepreneurship skills.”

Linda McCourt Scott, the co-founder and managing director, says Brothers for All is part of the non-profit group Mothers for All. Brothers for All was launched in 2013.

“The Langa coding project started in October 2014; to date around 150 unemployed youth and learners have registered. At least half of our students are females. Six of our students, four of whom are females, have already won scholarships to Codex,” she says.

Codex is a training programme that consists of an apprenticeship programme where developers do daily coding exercises, as well as talks with industry professionals and mentors.

 brothers_for_all_prison_article_1 A total of 150 unemployed youth and children has registered to learn things building a website from coding.

At the first class on 4 May, there were with 11 inmates – three males and eight females. “They have all enrolled in the course which will be run over the next 12 months. Part of our programme also requires that our trained students pass on the skills they have learned, so this offender group will quickly become the trainers of a new offender group.”

Here is what Brothers for All tweeted on the day:

Programming skills

She says they will learn a combination of programming languages, depending on their focus and ability. Those being taught include HTML5 and C++, Java, JavaScript, C#, PHP, Python, Ruby and SQL. “This will allow them to build websites, blogs and apps, and work in database management, among other things.”

McCourt Scott says proudly: “I would like to say that there is only one other prison coding project in the world, at San Quentin in California, which started late last year.

“However, this project is the first in the world that targets female offenders (most of whom are inside for economic crimes), and is the first to use ex-offenders to run the programme.”

No qualifications are needed for learning computer programming, McCourt Scott says, “only proficiency in English and basic maths as well as a strong commitment to learn”.

The initiative has permission to start the prison coding project in all 42 prisons in Western Cape. “The next one will probably be in Goodwood, as it is very close to our Langa centre.”

Resource needs

The project has a bit of sponsorship in the form of donated computers and laptops and funding to get the project off the ground, she says. “All our students and offenders are also taught to make recycled paper bead jewellery.

“This helps to bring in roughly R10 000 per month to pay for data costs, rent and travel. We urgently require a car at the moment so that we can reach more prisons, as well as additional computers, space to expand and support with our data costs,” she says.

“We use a Telkom LTE modem to link up around 50 computers at our centre and use approximately R2 000 data per month.”

Watch Sihle Tshabalala, a former convict talk about how he decided to make a difference with his life:

Watch Mzikula Duda of Brothers for All talk about how he made a decision not to do violence against women and children: