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UnLocked Labs brings STEM education to Missouri prisons

Haley Shoaf and Jessica Hicklin co-founded Unlocked Labs while Hicklin served time at Potosi Correctional Center.
Emily Woodbury
Haley Shoaf and Jessica Hicklin co-founded Unlocked Labs while Hicklin served time at Potosi Correctional Center.

Jessica Hicklin served 26 years in a maximum security prison for murdering someone when she was 16 years old. She was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, with a concurrent sentence of 100 years for armed criminal action.

“My introduction to prison was: ‘You have a lot of time. You're going to die here. Figure out what to do with your life,’” she told St. Louis on the Air.

But then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juveniles cannot be given mandatory sentences of life without parole. With the knowledge that she could one day reenter society, Hicklin began to consider who she would be if and when she left prison.

She transitioned, and she became the first transgender inmate in Missouri to successfully sue for the right to access hormone therapy. She also taught herself to code, despite the fact that she didn’t have access to the internet. A friend who worked at IBM lent her a big stack of books.

“Paper books all day, every day,” she recalled. “It took me about five years to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And that was to do my best to educate folks. That's how I understood giving back for the harm I had caused and trying to make a difference.”

Hicklin’s friend also introduced her to prison educator Haley Shoaf, who co-founded UnLocked Labs with Hicklin. Now, nine months after Hicklin’s release on parole, the two work to bring STEM education to people in prison.

Shoaf said people who are or who have been incarcerated are close to many societal problems, which lends them a unique perspective in finding solutions.

Jessica Hicklin and Haley Shoaf join St. Louis on the Air

“There's interesting bodies of research that actually show that entrepreneurial aptitude amongst folks that are incarcerated is higher than the population at large,” Shoaf said. “For people that don't spend a lot of time in and around justice-involved populations, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the potential, ingenuity and passion amongst all the students that I've worked with … is just incredibly high. And there's a will to want to give back to the world in some way.”

Hicklin is passionate about giving back, and she wants to make sure those who reenter society have the technical programming skills that employers want. She said that’s key to reducing the number of people who will reoffend and return to prison.

“I went to prison for murder, so at the end of the day, I did the worst thing and caused the most harm that can be done with an action, but I'm also sitting here in the studio with you right now,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of the people who are incarcerated … in this country are going to be living next door to somebody soon. Let's help them get back into society and succeed.”

Learn more about UnLocked Labs at this week’s STEM-OPS convention in St. Louis. Hicklin and Shoaf will present at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Related Event
What: 2022 STEM-OPS Annual Convening
When: Oct. 25-27
Where: Marriott St. Louis Grand (800 Washington Ave., St. Louis)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.