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Prison Scholars Fund fills the prison-to-employment pipeline with a new tech program

It wasn’t long after Dirk van Velzen began his 15-year sentence in 1999 that he decided he wanted to use his time in prison to get a college degree.

Incarcerated for a string of commercial burglaries, van Velzen initially thought he could use a federal Pell grant to fund his studies, but was disappointed to learn that people in prison were barred from receiving grants in 1994 after a bill written by then-Sen. Joe Biden passed through Congress. (The ban was finally lifted in 2020.)

Determined to get a college degree, Washington’s van Velzen wrote hundreds of letters to churches and organizations for help paying for school — to no avail. Finally, in 2001, his father agreed to foot the bill for his distance learning courses at Penn State, which he completed on paper through the mail. He graduated with honors. But along the way, he came to realize that in his family he was always expected and encouraged to get a higher education; other people he served time with were not. Further, even if people had the will, they often lacked the resources to make it possible.

He said that in prison, “there’s a lot of people that are … just as smart as you, just as hardworking as you. And they would take that opportunity if they had one. But not everyone has that opportunity.”

He decided to continue his fundraising for college but in service to other incarcerated people. It didn’t happen overnight, but by 2006 he founded his nonprofit, Prison Scholars Fund, while still incarcerated and with outside logistical help from his dad. Despite the challenges, he said he managed to raise $60,000 and support over 100 people who wanted to further their education with a mix of tuition and textbooks.

After his release in 2015, van Velzen went through the nonprofit management program at the University of Washington, graduated from an executive program on social entrepreneurship at Stanford Graduate School of Business and won first place in the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch competition. He has continued his work with Prison Scholars Fund, and until the pandemic they served about 30 students a year with access to postsecondary distance education, mentoring and advising.

Now, the organization is trying something different. Under a new partnership with Coding Dojo, Prison Scholars Fund is sending formerly incarcerated students to a full-stack development boot camp, free of charge, to gain skills in computer programming. (A full-stack developer focuses on both the client and the server side of an application.)

The first participant in the coding program is Ramsy Anton, 31. Anton, of Everett, served about a year in federal prison for wire fraud.

After leaving prison in 2017, Anton applied for many jobs, but said when he was forthcoming in interviews about his record, he didn’t move forward in the hiring process. It wasn’t until he was hired at MOD Pizza, which is a second-chance employer, that Anton finally got his career going. He discovered the Prison Scholars Fund Coding Dojo opportunity at just the perfect time in the fall, as they were about to enroll their first participants. He started the program in late November and it will take 32 weeks of part-time training to complete.

To keep up with his job at MOD Pizza, Anton wakes up early and codes for hours before he starts work remotely at the company’s support center, and then does classes and more coding for hours after his shift. It’s hard work and long days, but Anton is grateful. “There’s a lot of pressure on me, but I’m very excited,” he said. “And I want to set a good example for everybody that’s going to be in my shoes.”

He said being resourceful and assertive will help open doors when it’s time to find a job in tech, though he knows it won’t be easy.

“I know it’s going to be tough compared to other people that graduated boot camp without a felony. But I made it this far and I can just keep going,” he said. “I have a clear vision, I have a supportive wife and family, my head is on straight and I’m very determined.”

Loretta Taylor, the education services administrator for the state Department of Corrections, said investments in education pay dividends long term.

Taylor said for every $1 spent on education for incarcerated people, there is a $20 savings in return and that given nearly all people are eventually released, it just makes sense — for everyone — to provide training and job opportunities.

“It’s really about realizing that people can change and turn their lives around, and that these individuals who are in prison will be coming back into our communities, they will be our neighbors, and so the more we can do to ensure that they are successful and contributing members of our communities, then the better off we all will be,” Taylor said.

According to a 2018 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is 27%, which at the time of the study was nearly five times that of the general population. Additionally marginalized groups like Black women, for example, saw even higher unemployment rates than groups like white men.

In this year’s state legislative session, several bills — HB 1818, HB 1412 and HB 1681 — tackle aspects of reentry such as housing, legal financial obligations and conviction vacations for justice system-involved people.

For Anton, the future looks hopeful.

“We’re just trying to better ourselves moving forward, reduce recidivism, absolutely, and build a better future for ourselves and our families if we have one. And that’s the goal for me,” Anton said. “I feel like when I went to prison, I let my whole family down. And now that I got out, I’m supposed to do better, and I got to make a change in the world. … And that’s the path I’m on.”

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