Getting with the program: using coding to build family ties inside

Code Club 1

A game created by a Code Club student

In her role as Code Club Coordinator, Liz Smart is used to setting up free children’s coding clubs in schools, libraries, and community centres, but a chance meeting with business expert Maria Desmond MBE raised a question she wasn’t expecting: “Have you ever thought about setting up a Code Club in a prison?” In this blog, Liz tells the story of how the organisation responded, and goes from strength to strength.

Things took off quickly after meeting Maria. The amazing women at Partners of Prisoners (POPS) in HMP Kirkham jumped at the challenge. They provide support to help maintain family ties during a prisoner’s stay, and our idea at HMP Kirkham was to create a Code Club that young people could attend with their dads. There, they could work together to code computer games and animations, strengthening their relationships and building coding skills along the way.

Karen, Kayleigh, and Janet were soon on board as the first volunteers. The awesome Code Club volunteer Lisa Brown pitched in with some refurbished laptops donated by her employer Bosch UK, and the prison security team helped to make sure the equipment complied with internal policies.

The first session

HMP Kirkham Code Club launched to coincide with the October half-term visiting days, and the launch was a great success. POPS had crafted a fantastic display for the club space in a corner of the visits hall, and the dads and kids spent time working together on the Code Club projects. Maria Desmond attended the event and said afterwards: “I can honestly say that in my 15 years’ involvement in prisons, I have never been quite so emotional. The men and their families were so hugely positive and proud of their kids — it was priceless.”

An older prisoner was able to use a trackpad for the first time, which he said would definitely help his employability and confidence going to interviews.

Impact on the families

More than 40 families attended the Code Club during the three visiting sessions that week. The children started with Scratch projects — many had used Scratch in school and were excited to show their dads how they could manipulate the characters and get them to interact.

They coded simple animations tailored to their interests, and these acted as great conversation starters. One lad created a basketball animation, and his dad was amazed as his son proceeded to tell him all about his love of the sport.

An older prisoner was clearly surprised that his young grandson’s mouse skills were better than his own! He also told us that he was able to use a trackpad for the first time, which he said would definitely help his employability and confidence going to interviews.

Inspiring prisoner-run Code Clubs

The Code Club at HMP Kirkham continues to run and is inspiring other prisons to set up their own clubs too. At HMP Dovegate, the Code Club was set up by Throughcare Co-ordinator Hayley and is run by prisoner James. Other prisoners have also come on board to use their artistic flare and transform the Code Club space with murals based on the first Code Club projects.

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The Code Club at HMP Kirkham

James enjoys encouraging whole families to code together and has been working through advanced Code Club projects so that he can offer more complex projects in the future. He is also looking into helping prisoners who would like to attend Code Club themselves to grow coding skills ahead of visits from their family.

Working with Code 4000

James’ Code Club at HMP Dovegate was visited by staff from HMP Humber, who were inspired by the experience. At HMP Humber, the fantastic prison education initiative Code 4000 was already teaching prisoners to code, and it became clear that the two initiatives dovetailed beautifully. This meant that the prisoners involved in Code 4000 were the obvious candidates for running the HMP Humber Code Club, allowing them to further build their confidence as they use their new skills to help children and fellow prisoners alike.

The future of prison Code Clubs

A number of prisons are in the process of setting up Code Clubs, and the variety of the models in place so far highlight how the programme can be adapted to suit each prison while always resulting in skills development and growth opportunities for everyone involved. 

To learn more about running a Code Club at your prison, visit their website, or contact Liz Smart.