Editor’s Note: Since this story was published, Chad Latham accepted a job as a front-end developer at Amazon.
Just before Christmas last year, 41-year-old Chad Latham received a call from his lawyer. He had news from the President of the United States. At the time, Latham was in a 500-square-foot circle in a federal detention center on the outskirts of Sheridan, Oregon, where he’d spent the better part of the previous 10 years.
Latham grew up in Tacoma, Washington. While many kids his age were learning to ride a bike, Latham was all about computers, as in cracking them open and pushing their limits. As a third grader, he figured out how to load Frogger onto his school’s TI-99. By the time he turned 13, he’d built his first machine from scratch. In high school, he often skipped recess so that he could get more time in front of a monitor, and he became the go-to computer technician among his friends and family. Latham also developed a second hobby in high school: growing Marijuana.
By the time Latham graduated in 1995, he was running a sophisticated grow operation. Several years later, in the middle of the night, Latham was transporting equipment and about 2,000 plants to a house using a Uhaul and a suspicious neighbor called the police, who showed up and cuffed him. The severity of the situation began to take hold the moment the cops tossed him in the back of a squad car: He was about to be separated from his wife and 9-year-old son. “It was dumb luck and a lot of bad decisions” Latham says. “I really felt like that day was a whole new phase of my life.”
Latham’s case was turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration. To avoid the possibility of a steeper prison sentence, he accepted a plea deal for 15 years. When Latham first landed in a federal penitentiary in 2006, he made himself a promise: He would do everything he could to avoid wasting his time. “I didn’t want to sit there for 10 years and have nothing to show for it,” Latham says. “So I focused on being as productive as possible.” He turned to computers and program technology, or at least what little access he had to it. He would read long into the middle of the night, studying database structures and computer science theory; thanks to his techy background, he landed a prison job teaching the basics of Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Publisher to hundreds of other inmates; and he enrolled in a college program and earned a Bachelor’s degree in business administration, finishing with a 3.9 GPA.
Then, late last year, he got the call from his attorney. He explained President Obama was about to appear on television and announce he’d just commuted the sentences of 95 individuals. Latham’s name was on the list. Months earlier, two federal prosecutors had reviewed Latham’s case. Impressed by what he’d accomplished in prison, they suggested he apply for clemency and even offered to back the petition. With the help of an attorney, Latham filed the paperwork but tried not to think too much about his chances. “I was really skeptical,” says Latham, who learned that thousands of inmates apply for clemency each year and typically only a handful are approved. “This was a wonderful Christmas present for me and my family.”
Eleven days after the President’s announcement, Latham walked out of prison. His mother and his son Devin, who had since grown into a 21-year-old man, waited for him out front. Latham embraced his family as a free man for the first time in a decade. He then threw his belongings in the back of the car and said he was ready to “get the hell out of here.” Among his possessions that day was the formal letter he’d received from President Obama that read, in part, I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.
Latham spent the next four months on home confinement until the President’s commutation officially took effect in April of this year. Two weeks after that, intent on rebooting his life, he walked into Galvanize in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and sat down for his first class in the immersive Web Development program. Latham had read in prison about the explosion of alternative schools calling themselves coding boot camps. He was intrigued and excited about the possibility of getting acclimated in the modern computer world. Latham had asked his family to research the programs available in the Seattle area. One of the many reasons he chose Galvanize was the length of the coursework; he liked that the school offered a six-month web development program, which he felt would be more fruitful than the shorter programs run by other companies.
Ryan Sobol, a lead instructor at Galvanize in Seattle, who has taught hundreds of web development students, says Latham was as prepared as anyone he’s seen enter the program. “One of the hardest things a new student faces is the blank canvas syndrome,” says Sobol, explaining that Latham had no fear of confronting a blank page and writing code. “Chad had actually built programs from scratch.” And Sobol says the other students rallied around Latham when they learned his backstory. “Chad is a natural leader and mentor,” Sobol says. “Students gravitated toward him for advice and help.”
Latham graduated earlier this month as one of the top members of his cohort and has started his job search. He’s already had multiple interviews and is in talks with Booz Allen Hamilton about working on a contract the company just landed to run Recreation.gov. Although he’s a little apprehensive entering the job market after 10 years in prison, he’s thankful he has the support of his family—and the President. “Walking into Galvanize was kind of a dream,” Latham says. “That [Presidential clemency] letter reminds me that my time was used productively; looking back, it’s easy to feel like I could have done more, but thinking about the letter helps me realize that I did truly use my time as wisely as I could.”