What You Have To Know To Code in the Clink

If you want to come to a Coding in the Clink event, here’s what you need to know.

Q.  Are we going to be there over lunch?  In prison?  Maybe I should tell you what I’ve heard about prison food.

A. We’re pretty much leaving that to the guys inside to arrange. For the CITC #1, we ate in the prison chow hall with our guys and hundreds of other prisoners. It was only the third time I had eaten prison food. It wasn’t four-star, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected–and it was an adventure. For CITC #2, the Amvets donated enough money to get us each a fairly soupy but substantial submarine sandwich in Saran Wrap, which we could eat as we continued to code: that turned out to be the best part. The third time, we ate in the chow hall again, and again it was fine. This time? I don’t know yet. Let Dan know if you have dietary restrictions.

Q. But whatever will we do after Coding?

A. Tradition is to troop over to Bob Evans (about two miles south) and retrospect, although it’s also common for folks who have to get back to wherever they came from to skip Bob Evans and head on back.

Q. Where does all this happen, anyway?

A. The address is: 940 Marion-Williamsport Road Marion, Ohio 43302 The website is: http://www.drc.ohio.gov/Public/mci.htm The Google Maps satellite photo is: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=40.617119,-83.106707&spn=0.001012,0.002092&t=h&z=19 The directions from US 23 are: There are four Marion exits: you want the second-to-northernmost one, to Marion-Williamsport Road. (There’ll be a white-on-green highway sign saying “Marion Correctional Institution,” whether you’re coming from the north or from the south.) You go west (right, regardless of whether you come from north or south) on Marion-Williamsport Road, away from the airport; you’ll want the second prison on the right. (There are four of them on that road.) Turn right into the entrance just before you pass the Marion County Sheriff’s station on the left. Park in the visitor’s lot to the right, LOCK YOUR CAR, and go into the A building, which is the only one that sticks through the fence. (Don’t be seen examining the fence too closely: it makes folks nervous. Folks with guns.) Note: when you leave, you’ll have to turn left (north) onto the US 23 entrance ramp regardless of whether you’re going north or south. If you’re going south, turn before you cross the highway; if you’re going north, cross the highway before you turn.

Q. What’s the problem we’ll be working on?

A. We’ll be implementing a version of the dart game Cricket (which is not like the ball game cricket). History: for CITC #1, we did Conway’s Game of Life. For #2, we did Tic-Tac-Toe. For #3, we scored tennis. For #4, we played Dots. For #5, we deduced the order of a series of things from statements about their relationships to each other.  For #6, we coded Mancala.  For #7, we solved two-dimensional mazes. For #8, we wrote a version of the game Morabaraba. For #9, we tried our hand at George Walters’ and Guy Royse’s Evercraft kata. For #10, we worked a version of the classic Traveling Salesman problem from computer science.

Q. What programming language will we be working in?

A. Java and JavaScript. Not Scala, not Clojure (darn!), not Ruby, not Erlang, not Visual Foxpro. Why Java? Click the link.

Q. Prison? Prison?! But…but…

A. Things to Remember About Volunteering in Prison:

Probably the first thing you need to know is that you’ll need a government picture ID to get past the A building. For most people, that’s a driver’s license. Please make sure you bring it–especially if you’re coming from some distance away–else you’ll be sitting in the A building all day while the rest of us are inside.

Second, don’t bring in anything except the clothes on your back, your government picture ID, and your car key if you’re driving. No money, no drugs, no candy, no cough drops, no laptop, and especially no cell phone or anything else with a radio transmitter.  (If for some reason you have to bring in one or more of those items, talk to Dan far enough ahead of time that he can negotiate with the prison for you.) Nothing to give to an inmate: that could get him sent to the Hole and you instantly ejected if not arrested. (If you have something you want to make available to a prisoner, there may well be ways of doing it; but just handing it to him isn’t one of them. Talk to Dan about it.) Dan’s advice: put all that stuff in the trunk of the car you’re riding in.  And oh yes, one more thing: if you forget and leave something in your car, or if you forget to leave something in your car, and have to go back out to the parking lot, then walk, don’t run.  Even if everybody else is waiting on you: walk.  Running near a prison–especially away from a prison–tends to attract a lot of attention, and it’s all very much the wrong kind of attention.

Third, don’t accept anything from an inmate to bring out of the prison. Obviously, this includes a note saying, “The northwest corner of the fence will be unobserved at 2:20am; meet us there with the guns,” but less obviously, it also includes a handmade thank-you card expressing gratitude for your participation or a message to a prisoner’s mother that he loves her. The prisoners know this rule better than you do, and mostly you won’t have trouble with the fellows who are Coding in the Clink; but if somebody asks you to take something out for him, tell him, “I’ll do whatever I can to help; let me talk to Dan real quick.” (Probably he’ll say, “Oh–ah–don’t worry about it then, I’m good, never mind.”)

Fourth, don’t go anywhere outside the six-room Lifeline complex where we’ll be holding the Code Retreat (for example, to the bathroom) without an escort. Precisely what “escort” means will vary depending on what your destination is, but it will never mean “prisoner.” Even inside the Lifeline complex, don’t work things so that you’re the only outside person in a room, whether or not that room has prisoners in it.  Get somebody else from the outside to come with you. If you have to go to the bathroom, let Dan know and he’ll arrange things. If you have to leave the prison early, you’ll need to wait for a correctional officer to escort you, and that could take awhile. If you need to leave early, and you need to be out at a specific time, it’s best to let folks know as early as possible so that things can be arranged ahead of time.

Fifth, it’s “correctional officer” or “CO,” not “guard.” I had a CO tell me once, “Guards are people who prevent inanimate objects from being stolen. Our job is to keep you in the community safe from prisoners and to keep prisoners safe from each other.” There’s no prison rule that you have to be courteous to COs, but it’s important to remember, if we want to keep doing this, that our presence as outsiders in the prison makes their job considerably more difficult than it would be without us. To the extent courtesy can serve to mitigate that difficulty, it’s highly recommended. Nod, smile, say “Good morning!” Be pleasant. There is, however, a prison rule that you have to obey COs. If a CO tells you to do something, do it without question or challenge. If he’s wearing a white shirt instead of a gray one, it means he’s not a CO, he’s a sergeant or a lieutenant or a captain or the Major. Especially don’t mess with those guys. If you’re in the corridor and you hear an announcement over the PA and suddenly COs are running full-tilt past you down the hall, just stop where you are and make yourself small. There’s an emergency somewhere in the prison. Step the wrong way and you’re liable to get run over by 250 pounds of adrenaline-suffused meat–and he won’t stop to apologize.

Sixth, it’s generally considered impolite to ask a prisoner what his crime was, or how long he’s been in prison, or how long before he gets out–especially if it’s just to satisfy idle curiosity. If he wants you to know, he’ll tell you; but since our purpose for being there has absolutely nothing to do with that sort of thing, probably he won’t get around to it. You’ll get along best with these guys if you simply treat them as equals and interact with them the way you would interact with junior developers at an industry conference. You may even find that one or two of them are not so junior after all, depending on the particular skill under consideration. There is, however, a reflex that makes them different from the average developer you’ve paired with, and that’s the reflex that tends to keep them from correcting a visitor. I think the mechanism is that they’re afraid a visitor will be insulted by a correction, and that if he’s insulted he may leave and not come back, and visitors in prison are highly valued. Most of these guys have done some work on extinguishing that reflex where pairing is concerned, but you may have to help them work on it some more. Even better would probably be to make them drive most of the time.

Seventh, don’t wear shorts or jeans–or any denim. I’m not sure what the thinking behind this rule is exactly, but it’s pretty common in prisons. Also, if you normally wear shoes with structural steel in them (steel toes, steel shanks, whatever), you probably won’t make it through the metal detector with them. You can take them off and put them back on if you like, but it might be easier to wear shoes for the occasion that have no structural steel. (And don’t say “shank” in prison: it’s like saying “bomb” in an airport.)

Eighth, don’t get involved in the politics of the situation. Don’t commiserate with the staff about what worthless scum the prisoners are, and don’t commiserate with the prisoners about how corrupt and brutal the staff is. You’ll undoubtedly have your own opinions going in (although they may change while you’re there) and there’s nothing wrong with that; but from a practical perspective we’re going to be depending on both groups to make this work. We can talk among ourselves about it before we go in and after we come out; but while we’re in there, let’s concentrate on code.

Finally, if you have to be reached while you’re in prison, here’s the number your people should use: 740 382 5781 Dial 0 and ask for LifeLine, extension 3361.

Q. Okay, you’ve told me a lot of stuff, but what I really want to know is, when is the next Coding in the Clink?

A. We’re using this page for a permanent reference that covers all of our events.  Event registration will be handled at EventBrite.  We try to Code in the Clink once per quarter; occasionally we succeed.  This should be a link to the EventBrite page for either the next upcoming event or (if we haven’t scheduled the next one yet) the most recent one.  More current information will be posted on Twitter under #citc.  If something here needs to be updated, mention it to @dnwiebe on Twitter.

    • Ravi
    • March 28th, 2012

    I have a food preference. I am a vegetarian and that means no meat any form or color :)

  1. thats a good idea I would love to have gone but I am not in America :(

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