As U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her way through a classroom at Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility on Wednesday, each student showed her the computer game they had just programmed.
“You’ve played Rock-Paper-Scissors before, right?” Darius Fahmawi, 17, one of the all-male facility’s nine students, asked the education secretary. Yes, she had.
Fahmawi’s game — one of his early assignments in his coding class — allows players to compete against the computer. He explained how the computer chooses a 15-digit number between 0 and 1 to generate its response.
DeVos has visited Indiana multiple times since taking office, usually to tour charter schools and praise the state’s expansive voucher program.
This time around, though, she came to see The Last Mile, a coding program for inmates that expanded last year to Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, about 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis, after the California-based program received a $2 million grant from Google. The program goal: to place more former inmates in the workforce and reduce recidivism. Since 2015, 33 percent of Indiana juveniles who were released were incarcerated again, according to the state’s Department of Corrections 2018 report.
DeVos called the program a “good model” for second-chance education, saying it’s “very consistent” with President Donald Trump’s criminal justice reform agenda.
The education secretary’s visit follows her calls on U.S. Congress to expand and make permanent the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. In 2015, the Obama administration launched that program, which offers grants to inmates to pursue postsecondary education before being released.
By allocating federal dollars to the pilot program, “we hope that Congress will take this up and consider making this a permanent and reliable stable program in the future,” DeVos said during her visit.
DeVos has not included The Last Mile in her push to fund second-chance education. On Wednesday she said this is the third second-chance program she’s visited.
Jack Cochran, director of expansion for The Last Mile, said the program’s founders have been to the White House and hope to secure federal dollars. The nonprofit runs 15 programs in five states, the majority of which serve incarcerated adults, and is looking to expand nationwide.
Cochran said it has graduated 70 students, none of whom have reoffended.
Gov. Eric Holcomb brought The Last Mile to Indiana in 2017 and has touted it as part of his effort to bolster Indiana’s workforce and help employers who struggle to fill high-skill jobs. Holcomb pledged in 2018 to graduate at least 1,000 of Indiana’s more than 25,000 inmates annually — a goal he reported surpassing in his last state of the state address.
Currently all of the five Indiana locations rely entirely on private donations. Pendleton’s program started with 12 students in December and currently has nine. The program lasts 18 months, so no one has been there long enough to graduate. If students are released, they can continue the program through a scholarship to Eleven Fifty Academy, a separate nonprofit code academy.
For the most part, their classroom feels like any other, with long tables with textbooks stacked between each computer monitor. There’s a projector screen at the front, and each of the nine students wears a polo and elastic-waist khakis.
But it’s still a detention facility. The only window is a small one looking out into the hallway. There’s no Google — or internet access of any kind. And each boy’s white tennis shoes are labeled with their last name.
For Fahmawi, the program showed him there’s still something he can do after being released, even if he has a criminal record. He said he hopes the class showed DeVos how productive they can be.
“A lot of people don’t get to meet anyone in the White House,” he said.