How the Inmates of Today Can Become the Innovators of Tomorrow
By Steve Hawkins
NB: This is part of a series of interviews conducted by Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety, featuring individuals taking the initiative to change the justice system within their sphere of influence.
According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of individuals released from prison are re-arrested after three years or less, and over three-quarters are re-arrested after five years or less. Because of the many barriers to re-entry, returning citizens often struggle to find employment and adequate living arrangements and consequently end up back in a bad situation, in spite of the best intentions.
When Chris Redlitz learned of this and various other shocking statistics about the U.S. justice system, he decided it was time to act. Together with Beverly Parenti, his wife and business partner, he developed The Last Mile — a program that helps combat recidivism by teaching inmates web coding and other key tech skills that enable them to find jobs upon their release.
We at the Coalition for Public Safety love Chris and Beverly’s work — so much so that we asked them to help redesign our website! I recently chatted with both of them to hear more about the program and their vision for its future. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Steven Hawkins: How did you first become aware of the need for educational and employment prep in San Quentin? Did you have prior experience working in the justice system?
Chris Redlitz: Six years ago, I entered San Quentin State Prison for the first time. I had never been in a prison before, especially one with as ominous a reputation as San Quentin. When I arrived, I was escorted through a series of gates that eventually led to the main courtyard. On my left was the adjustment center that houses 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, as they say at San Quentin, at the gate between heaven and hell.
As the sun was setting, I was led down a paved road, past the guard towers into the lower yard, where hundreds of men in blue were exercising, playing chess, or just milling around.
Frankly, at that point, I was questioning my decision to come there. I had never worked inside a prison before, knew very little about issues facing the justice system and came to SQ as a favor to a friend.
When I began my first initial talk at San Quentin, I noticed that the men were fixated on every word. There weren’t any distractions. There are no cell phones in prison.
When I was finished speaking, hands went into the air. My thirty-minute talk turned into a two-hour discussion. These men were prepared, motivated, and committed to learning how they could create a better life after they served their time. This was not the profile of social misfits that I had expected to encounter.
I was excited after I left the prison that night. Through my years of work at an early-stage venture fund, I’ve worked with aspiring entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley for a long time. Could I do the same with those in prison?
I was excited to tell my wife, Beverly, and develop a plan. Her first reaction was, “I am not spending my time in prison.”
I asked her to have an open mind before making any judgment. I asked her to help me do some research into incarceration in America and to visit San Quentin to meet the men I’d met that day.
What we learned about issues facing the prison system today was shocking:
1. From 1972 to 2010, the number of people in prison in the U.S. had increased 700 percent.
2. Twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population is in the U.S.
3. In California, we spend more on prisons than on higher education.
4. It costs around $70,000 to keep one prisoner incarcerated in California for one year.
5. More than 67 percent of the state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested within the next three years.
You don’t have to be a professional investor to realize that this is a bad investment for taxpayers. If we could reduce recidivism by just 5 percent, we could save billions of dollars over the next ten years. But without rehabilitation, these problems will persist.
What was the path from the original entrepreneurship program to the current coding program?
C.R.: In 2010, we partnered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA) to create a six-month business and entrepreneurship program called The Last Mile. The program leverages many of the disciplines that we use within our investment practice. We work with prisoners who’ve committed many types of crimes, some of them violent. (We don’t work with those on death row, however, or with people incarcerated for crimes against children).
We asked the men to create a business around a personal passion, and we taught them how to build a business plan. In one of the early graduating classes, James Houston developed a nonprofit business plan that would positively impact at-risk youth in his old neighborhood. He created Teen Tech Hub, an after school program that teaches app development and gives basic coding instruction to kids from 10 to 14 years old. After serving 18 years in prison, James returned to Richmond, California, to pursue his dream. He was hired by the City of Richmond, and he plans to launch Teen Tech Hub sometime in the future.
In 2014, we launched Code.7370 San Quentin, the first computer programming curriculum in a U.S. prison. The results have been extraordinary. The coding program proved to be more scalable: Now we are across five California facilities and have a waitlist of over 25 different states and countries eager to implement our program. Some of our graduates will be released this year, and we are confident they will be hired as software engineers. With hard work and determination, these men have overcome serious obstacles and created a positive path for their future.
SH: What were some of the things that surprised you the most about the people participating in the program or the processes you’ve developed?
CR: When you first come into a prison environment, your mind starts racing with all the stereotypes of incarceration. Passing through the many security checkpoints with correctional officers watching from the towers can make anyone nervous.
But after you pass through the gates and the yard, you enter a classroom, and it looks like any other classroom you would see outside the prison. Students are hungry to learn, respectful, and determined to succeed.
S.H.: What challenges or hurdles have you had to overcome?
Beverly Parenti: For the first two years, Chris and I taught The Last Mile classes ourselves twice a week at night. We were teaching business and entrepreneurships to students who had no access to technology, some of whom had never even touched a keyboard or been online. There was hesitation from the prison administration and the inmate population on how we were going to do it, but through persistence, we proved that we had a common vision, passion, and a readiness to do something that few thought possible. Through the success of our four entrepreneurship cohorts and Demo Days, we gained the trust of the prison staff and students.
When we started the coding program at San Quentin in partnership with CalPIA (California Prison Industry Authority), there were many obstacles to overcome: Internet access is prohibited and most of the inmates were incarcerated before the web. To this end, we worked with Aruba Technologies to build a local area network with a secure server donated by HP. The server hosts all of our curriculum and acts as a repository for our students. Through this, we are able to simulate an internet environment without any actual connectivity.
S.H.: What have been some of the most inspiring stories that have come out of your time leading these programs?
B.P.: The examples of perseverance and commitment are incredibly inspiring. One of the most enduring examples is the story of Darnell Hill. Darnell was given a seven to life sentence for robberies that he committed with his father at 22 years old. He was sent to San Quentin State Prison and his cellmate was his father. He was denied suitability for release 5 times because of his continued association with his father, who kept pursuing illegal activity while in prison. Darnell finally requested a transfer to get away from his father, and began his own path to redemption. He ultimately served 24 years in prison and became a positive influence for many men behind bars. He graduated from The Last Mile program, and now works for Centerforce, a nonprofit in Oakland, working with at-risk youth.
Another amazing anecdote: Darnell was married six months before his incarceration. His wife, Sonya, committed herself to the relationship, and visited Darnell nearly every weekend for 24 years. She was waiting for Darnell at the gate when Darnell was released from San Quentin in 2014.
S.H.: What advice do you have for others looking to start programs like these?
B.P.: Do not let the red tape of bureaucracy keep you from achieving your goal. From our experience, it is best to work with government agencies and develop innovative strategies within the confines of a prison environment.
S.H.: What’s your vision for the program going forward?
B.P.: Our hope is to implement our program in facilities across the United States. We know that the incarcerated have a need and hunger for education, and we are determined to be the leading innovator in technology education inside prisons.
The Code.7370 curriculum will be active in five prisons in California this year, including two women’s prisons. We hope to create a national program within the next five years and to that end are in development of a Learning Management System which can be licensed and deployed to remote facilities.
We have become lifers. The Last Mile is a lifelong commitment for us, and we are blessed that so many incredible people have dedicated their time to make this program such a powerful experience. We are proud of our returned citizen graduates, none of whom have gone back to prison. They pave the way for others to follow.