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Unlocking Potential

The first day

Three years ago, I walked into San Quentin State Prison for the first time. I had never been in a prison before, let alone a place as legendary as San Quentin.

After I arrived, I was checked in through a series of gates, finally entering the main courtyard of the prison. On my left was the Adjustment Center that housed Death Row inmates, some of the most notorious criminals in California. On my right was the Catholic Chapel surrounded by a well-manicured garden. I was standing, as they say at San Quentin, at the gate between heaven and hell.

As the sun was setting, I was escorted down a paved road that circled past the guard towers into the lower yard, where hundreds of men dressed in blue were exercising, playing chess or just milling around. I was led to a small classroom where I was scheduled to present to a group of inmates about business and entrepreneurship. As I saw the men enter the classroom, I began to question my decision to come to San Quentin. This was not the typical audience of aspiring entrepreneurs that I normally encounter.

As I began to talk, I noticed that they were fixated on every word, and no one was looking at their phones, since they are not allowed in prison. After my presentation, hands went into the air, asking a wide spectrum of questions. My 30-minute talk turned into two hours. The voices of the men had a profound impact on me as I left the prison that evening. They were voices of hope, passion and determination.

I went home that night excited to tell my wife Beverly, thinking, “We work with young entrepreneurs every day, why not here?” As a result, Beverly and I developed a plan that in many ways mirrored what we do at KickLabs, the technology accelerator that we run in San Francisco. We work with young entrepreneurs, helping them grow their businesses to achieve success.

It was very important that we accomplished three key objectives:

  1. Would this programme resonate in the prison? Would the men be able to absorb the concepts and applications without directly experiencing them?

  2. Would the business community support our efforts, and would people from the outside be willing to participate?

  3. Would businesses hire the men of the Last Mile after they graduated from the programme, and after they were released?


It is very gratifying to say today that we have accomplished our initial objectives, providing the necessary data to determine where and how we can grow this programme.

 

Positive outcomes

The ultimate goal is that when these men return home, they have the necessary tools and confidence to pursue their dreams of starting a business or working in a business, believing that they belong. We guarantee each graduate a paid internship after they are released. The best example of success is our recent graduate, Heracio Harts. Heracio was incarcerated for nearly nine years, and returned home on 12 March, 2013. He is being mentored by 2012 graduate Tulio Cardozo (who now has his own technology consulting business). Heracio was hired as an intern at Rally.org, as a result of the work that he did as part of The Last Mile programme. This is the success that we are all striving for.

We utilise our experience as successful entrepreneurs, and our extensive network in the technology business community, to help bridge the gap between the penal system and the local business sector. We are using current technologies, video content and social media resources to build programmes, and evangelise solutions to address the fiscal fractures we are facing with the cost of incarceration ($45k per year to house an inmate) and the high recidivism rates (over 60 percent) across the country. Specific skills related to verbal and written communication, business formation and operation, presentation skills, and computer proficiency are covered during the programme. Each programme session has a six month term.

The initial success of The Last Mile has created awareness and receptiveness within other correctional facilities and a growing awareness in local business communities that employing formerly incarcerated men and women can be a positive experience. The curriculum will be packaged into content modules, allowing other correctional facilities to run The Last Mile programme. Through our current activities in San Quentin State Prison, we have recognised and established a unique and engaging path for many others to follow. We believe that we are extremely well suited to confront this challenge and lead a positive disruption that is long overdue. Our primary goal is to expand this programme nationally.

The men of The Last Mile participate in social media. They are committed to open their hearts and speak their minds. They don't have direct internet access, so they hand write their content, and it is uploaded by The Last Mile volunteers. The content written by the participants appears on Twitter, Facebook, Quora and several selected blogs including The Daily Love and The Huffington Post. Marc Bodnick, COO of Quora, stated that "…the content from The Last Mile is some of the most engaging and most frequently read content on the Quora site", reaching a global audience. Social media distribution allows the participants to share their ideas and perspectives, and provide insights that have not existed in the past. The participants can begin to build a "living resumé" of content which will provide prospective employers a better view of their communication skills. The global exposure has led to inquiries from prospective volunteers, news media, other correctional facilities that are interested in starting their own Last Mile chapter, and most importantly, businesses that are interested in employing the participants that graduate and are subsequently released.

 

The programme

The participants are selected after they complete an application, demonstrate adequate communication skills, complete the designated prerequisite programmes, and are recommended by the prison administration and at least one of their peers. Graduates of the programme become mentors and instructors for future classes until the time that they are released.

The current curriculum involves the following key business skills:

  1. The evolving digital marketplace: Provides a background about how the world of communication and expression has changed dramatically over the last ten years through new technology platforms and social media. Class members study the ever-changing digital landscape and how to utilise technology for personal and professional benefit.

  2. Building a knowledge base: An ongoing curriculum of reading relevant books that provide a solid background of business knowledge, personal growth, and inspiration. The group discusses the books and explores specific insights. Each participant leads group discussions, rotating every week.

  3. Practical technology training: Provides basic computer training in the software tools that are utilised (primarily Microsoft Office Suite) in today's business sector. Access to the internet is NOT required for this training.

  4. Guest speakers: Guest speakers from the business community participate in the programme and share their stories about creating a successful business and being successful employees. Many of the sessions are filmed and edited into ten-minute content modules based on specific topics. This content is part of the curriculum that will be repackaged for other facilities to utilise in the future.

  5. Creating a business plan: Participants learn how to transform an idea into a business plan and presentation. The goal is to provide opportunities for participants to develop an idea and prepare a presentation to effectively communicate to a prospective business partner. The direct benefits include improving communication skills, confidence, operating as a team and receiving insights into new technology.

  6. Demo day: The final session includes business presentations (demo day) by the participants to an invited outside panel.


 

Over 50 invited guests from the business community attended a recent TLM demo day including former Secretary Matthew Cate from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and California First Lady, Anne Brown. Everyone that attended was astounded at the quality of the business plans that were presented. One venture investor commented, "If several of these plans were presented at a demo day on the outside, there is a good chance they would get funded."

The Last Mile provides each graduate paid internship opportunities and continuing education after release through a network of businesses that have become members of a platform called Collaborative Benefit. This is a LinkedIn-style resource for current and formerly incarcerated people, and for businesses to get an insight into job candidates and track their progress through their social media contributions, mentor reports and video documentation. The platform will also facilitate communication between its individual members, so they can provide information, support and feedback to their colleagues. Every member business will have access to all participating individuals and other businesses to exchange ideas, and share best practices. The site will be operated by designated volunteer administrators.

 

A hopeful future

We intend to evangelise the message that there is hope, responsibility, and the desire to succeed within correctional facilities across America, but ultimate success requires the education and awareness amongst our business and community leaders.

The Last Mile programme has demonstrated that we can successfully communicate business fundamentals to incarcerated individuals and teach them how to evolve and articulate business ideas, beyond anyone's expectation.

There are many voices in the world that are not heard, but if you listen closely, you might hear a whisper that can develop into a true voice and lead to a calling. These voices might come from the most unlikely place. As we walk through the gates of San Quentin each week, we are inspired by the voices of the men of The Last Mile. By reading this story, we hope they can become an inspiration to you too.

 

SPEAKING OUT

Why did you join TLM?

I was always interested in business, but I never received the proper training. After I attended the first demo day at San Quentin, I realized this was my opportunity. It was an amazing experience, and now that I am back in the business community, I appreciate the depth of what I learned.

What was the biggest surprise while you were participating in the programme?

I was surprised that people read and responded to our social media: tweets, blogs and answers on Quora. We've had thousands of people read our postings, and we've received lots of written responses. Social media did not exist before I went to prison, it's amazing.

What would you tell future candidates of TLM?

I would tell them to trust the process. At times it’s hard and you wonder why you are being asked to do some of the projects and tasks, but it all leads to a very successful conclusion. The men in the programme created a real bond and trust, like nothing that I've ever experienced.

What are your goals for the future?

I want to be a contributing member of society and become successful so I can give back to those that are still struggling. I've been given a rare opportunity and I intend to maximize it as much as possible. I want to make my family proud, and carry that pride with me every day.

Heracio Harts: Released 12 March 2013 - Term: 8 ½ years

 

 

Chris Redlitz is the founding partner of Transmedia Capital, a San Francisco based venture firm focused on early stage, digital media and commerce companies. He is also the founding partner of KickLabs, one of the top ranked technology accelerators in the United States. He is a recipient of Ad Age's prestigious i20 award for his contributions to the development of interactive marketing and advertising. Chris spent more than ten years at Reebok International in sales and marketing and also owned one of the first sports retail chains in Southern California. Chris, together with his wife and business partner, Beverly Parenti, founded their passion project, The Last Mile in San Quentin prison. It is an entrepreneurial programme, providing opportunities for incarcerated men to become productive members of society after their release.
Published on 24-05-2013 20:03 by David Tee. 865 page views

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