“The Hardest Part Was Finding a Job”

Zoie Harmon was 19 years old when she first entered prison in Oklahoma for drug trafficking and possession of a firearm. She spent nine years behind bars before she was released. But with few job skills and no connections, she soon found herself turning to old habits. She landed back in prison.

Though still incarcerated at age 33, this time Harmon has a real shot at gaining the necessary skills to land a well-paying job upon her release. She’s among the inaugural class in computer coding at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud.

The Last Mile class from Mabel Bassett, Oklahoma.

The class is part of an initiative of The Last Mile, a training program for individuals who are incarcerated. The organization recently partnered with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and local nonprofits, including the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, to offer the course to women. For years Oklahoma has incarcerated more women per capita than any other state in the nation.

“I’m a second-time offender, and the hardest part was finding a job,” Harmon says. “I just know technology is a big thing. I’m never going to not be able to get a job again. I never thought computer coding and software engineering would be something I would do until I got thrown into it, but I really, really enjoy it.” The class launched in February to much fanfare, including the appearance of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and rapper MC Hammer, who is on the board of The Last Mile.

The organization’s executive director and founder, Beverly Parenti, notes that though The Last Mile started in 2010 at San Quentin State Prison, a maximum-security men’s facility in California, “if we’re going to have this program for men, we need to make sure that there’s an equal opportunity for women.”

Out of sight should not mean out of mind – and heart. But the tragedy for women in prison is that it often does.

We at Ms. want women in prison to know they are seen and valued. That’s why we started the Ms. magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program. Because domestic violence shelters can be almost as isolating as prisons – and often lack libraries or any reading material, just as many prisons do – we include women in those shelters too.

We hope to keep growing this meaningful program—but we need your help. Together, let’s show women in prisons and domestic violence shelters that they have not been forgotten. 

For the women at Mabel Bassett, the course has been an intensive look into computers and technology, a challenging endeavor for some of the women who had never even touched a keyboard before. After 40 hours of class instruction each week for a year, these same women will become proficient in CSS, jQuery, HTML, Bootstrap and other programs. With these new skills, their job outlook is good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2016 there were nearly 300,000 computer programming jobs in the U.S., along with 4 million jobs in related fields like software and web development and computer support.

“I’ve been given this opportunity that not very many people have, and most have to pay for it,” says 36-yearold Guadalupe Serrano, who was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute. The mother of four children, Serrano says she has wanted to quit the class at times but keeps persevering, knowing that she will make a positive difference in her life, her family and her community.

Serrano, whose first language is Spanish, says she hopes to create bilingual websites and programs once she leaves prison. Parenti, too, is looking to the future. She hopes that her organization can begin offering the course at other locations in Oklahoma. She notes that, halfway into the yearlong program, the women are feeling more energized and excited about their prospects.

“It’s a big deal for a lot of us,” says 29-year-old Brandy Womack, who was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute. “It gives us hope and inspires us and gives us something to strive for. In this place you can get real down.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Ms.

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Kristi Eaton is a media relations consultant and freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @KristiEaton.