On Wednesday, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Massachusetts Lowell published the results of a two-year study of Brave Behind Bars, MIT’s web design program for incarcerated students. Taught inside six U.S. prisons, the college-accredited computer science and career-readiness course was designed to foster digital literacy, develop self-efficacy and promote successful reintegration into society and the workplace.

The qualitative study evaluated the effects of teaching HTML and JavaScript to incarcerated students, highlighting a notable increase in their self-confidence and digital competencies — key factors in reducing recidivism, or the rate at which people who are released return to prison. 

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and 83% of people released from prison go back within nine years, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice. However, a RAND study aggregating 37 years of research (1980-2017) on correctional education shows that people who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 28% less likely to return to prison.

“Education has long been recognized as a pivotal factor in reducing recidivism and fostering successful reentry,” said Martin Nisser, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and a program co-founder. “By equipping incarcerated learners with invaluable digital literacy skills and boosting their self-confidence, our program aims to teach the skills necessary to thrive in today’s technology-driven world.”

The 12-week curriculum has three main parts: core technical skills like coding, career readiness, and a capstone project in which students apply what they learn to build an offline website centered on such issues as equality, race and mental health. Courses are offered in Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, also called the DC Jail; the program is expanding to more sites as well.

One of the unique aspects of the program is that it brings together men and women from gender-segregated facilities into one classroom. Incarcerated people rarely have direct interaction with other incarcerated individuals of another gender. In addition, the program utilizes formerly incarcerated program graduates as teaching assistants, who are often in a good position to offer feedback on current students’ needs. 

The researchers also concluded that other factors contributing to the program’s success are its low student-teacher ratio, its focus on hands-on learning, and the fact that students are given the freedom to choose the topics of the websites they design themselves, which can give participants a greater sense of self-accomplishment. 

“Web programming is popular in prison because students get to use their creativity to build a website that’s real and tangible, which is highly motivating,” Nisser said. “Our low student-to-staff ratios support individualization in teaching, which is compatible with findings that active dialogue is key to fostering students’ sense of self-determination and confidence.” 

That self-efficacy, as explained in the study, is one predictor of a formerly incarcerated person’s success in the modern workplace. Having an opportunity to learn about computers,  programming, browsers and email while inside prison increases a student’s knowledge base and prepares them for the world they will return to.

The average unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is about 27%, five times higher than the general U.S. population. With joblessness rates as high as 60% one year after release, gaining a skill like website design could increase someone’s chances of being hired.

Some program graduates went on to open their own businesses when they were released, based on the skills they gained from the course. Linda Small and Mackenzie Kelley, both from Maine, are former Brave Behind Bars students and final project teammates who used the knowledge they learned in class about JavaScript, Slack, marketing and project management to co-found a nonprofit helping formerly incarcerated women with reentry.

“Prison education programs like Brave Behind Bars provide career training and skill-building, but they also create independence and empowerment that leads to meaningful employment,” Small said. “That’s a large pillar of a successful reentry.”

The final MIT project allowed the two teammates to start thinking about their future and what they would do when released. They talked about having a higher purpose and how helping other people would give them value and reinforce their self-worth — intangible things that ultimately contribute to staying out of prison. 

“For our final project, we used JavaScript to write code and design a working website, and now we are out in the community and use that website as part of our real organization,” Kelley said. “We both realized the very dire situation for women reentering into the community. There really was no support for us. Hence why we created Reentry Sisters, a nonprofit helping women when they leave prison, to provide a bridge to resources and offer support during their transition.” 

Brave Behind Bars was launched in 2021 by Nisser and Marisa Gaetz, the authors of the study, and has received the support of the Educational Justice Institute at MIT and MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Since then, they have been joined by two dozen volunteer professors from Harvard and MIT who instruct and coach students online and in person.

Other tech training programs like The Last Mile and Unlocked Labs have been operating for several years, and there is an ongoing effort to connect program graduates with employers so they can use their skills to build careers.

The MIT study focuses on program graduates who have not yet been released. Without long-term evaluations on graduates like Small and Kelley, who have left prison, it’s unclear how Brave Behind Bars will benefit incarcerated students in the future. The study is also done by the program founders, and is not an external, independent evaluation of its outcomes. 

Still, if other studies of prison education programs are an indication, this web design program should yield high employability and low recidivism rates for its graduates.  “Connecting students to the workforce is another important goal that we’re working on, now that the program has taken shape,” Nisser said. “We’ve started organizing virtual job fairs to bring students in contact with possible employers, and we’re also in discussions with other companies about setting up paid apprenticeship programs for our graduates.”

This story was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project, a national nonprofit organization which trains incarcerated writers in journalism and publishes their work. Sign up for PJP’s newsletter, or follow them on Instagram and X.

Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist and award-winning author who’s work has been published over 200 times in literary journals and in media outlets. To see his full portfolio go to muckrack.com/ryan-moser.