Program teaches formerly incarcerated people skills to land better-paying jobs

NEW YORK (WABC) -- For people who have spent time behind bars, getting back on their feet can be a challenge.

A free program out of Columbia University is working to give ex-cons a helping hand by teaching them the skills to land better-paying jobs.

DeShawn - who chose not to share his last name - says after a decade of freedom, he is still paying for the year he spent in prison.

"I made a fault 10 years ago that still haunts me to this day, I don't have an issue getting an interview, but once the background check comes up, it becomes an issue," said DeShawn.
While he's been able to get jobs over the years, he said it's been employment that's barely over minimum wage.

That's where Justice Through Code comes in -- a free but highly competitive program at Columbia University for formerly incarcerated men and women.

It's a whole new world into the realm of programming that started last spring.

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"In a few months, you can develop a skillset that can provide you a pathway to a high wage career," said Aedan MacDonald, the founder and director of the program.

Drawing on his own experience in the prison system, MacDonald, who is white, worked with the university's Center for Justice to develop a plan to help turn the tide on the country's recidivism rate.
"Even though reentry was very difficult, it was easier for me than it would be for people of color who are returning home," said MacDonald.

According to the Center for Justice, 77% of people released from prison in the United States are rearrested within five years. Among the estimated five million formerly incarcerated people, about 27% are unemployed, and the median yearly income three years after release is less than $11,000.

"So if you look at the bottom 10% of earners in this country, their sons are 20 times more likely to end up incarcerated in their lifetime that the top 10% of earners," said MacDonald.

It's a perpetual cycle MacDonald hopes to break all while closing a large diversity gap in technology and opening new doors for people like DeShawn, a new father and graduate from John Jay Criminal College in Manhattan.

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