Reversing the Patterns of Incarceration Through Social Innovation

By Chris Redlitz

Co-Founder, The Last Mile

Our society has replicated patterns of poverty, crime and incarceration from generation to generation. While we’ve made some strides to address certain components of these problems, we continue to over invest in short-term band aid solutions. We fail to address the systems in place that continue to burden our society.

We have not leveraged the fundamentals of success that permeate our entitled class, a class who has the power and means to create change in under served communities. These fractured communities continue to breed discontent, instability and violence. The unfortunate result is massive wealth disparity coupled with a crime rate that remains unchecked, contributing to a rapid escalation of our prison population.

The United States is 4% of the world’s population and houses 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, more people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. This comes at a huge financial and humanitarian cost.

We are arguably one of the world’s most innovative societies in terms of technological advancement and social openness, yet we live with a legacy of punishment that embodies the characteristics of a third world country. Why are we so enamored with new technologies that make us more social, more productive, and potentially wealthier; and ignore the biggest injustices present in our society?

Social Innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient,sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals. — Stanford GSB

Social Innovation is emerging as a solution to difficult societal problems. Social entrepreneurs see new patterns and possibilities for innovation and they are willing to develop disruptive ideas even when established organizations are unwilling to pursue them. Millennials represent a new generation of social innovation that is engaging societal problems with a vigor that has been eternally absent. I have personally experienced the growing momentum of social innovation…and it gives me hope.

I run a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley and many would say that I come from an entitled background. But, nearly every week for the last four years, I go to prison. I am in prison by choice, trying to replicate a culture of innovation that surrounds me in Silicon Valley every day. I have become a social entrepreneur, an unlikely label for someone who never worked in a soup kitchen, gave a dollar to the Salvation Army Santa, or had time to be a Big Brother.

When I visited San Quentin State Prison in 2010 to speak to a group of men about business and entrepreneurship (as a favor to a friend), I never expected that experience would alter the course of my life, forever. That October evening I encountered men with hope, passion and focus. These men were hungry to learn and had an unwavering will to create a better life after they served their time. Could innovation infiltrate the walls of this historic institution? If we provided the necessary training tools, could we enable a forgotten population the ability to rebuild their personal brands and actually have a positive output on society?

My wife Beverly and I set upon a path of discovery to prove that innovation can grow from a core desire to become productive members of society. Imagine criminals who once terrorized their streets, evolving into pillars of hope and success. We developed a program called The Last Mile, teaching business skills and entrepreneurship in prison, culminating in a “demo day”, where our graduates have a once in a lifetime platform to present to an audience of fellow inmates and invited guests from the business community. Many of the men who have presented at a demo day over the last several years, say that it was the “best day of their lives”, a moment in time that will be forever remembered, accepted in a community that seemed so far away, yet only across the bay.

We have seen men change before our eyes, gain confidence, learn to collaborate, and create a brotherhood that transcends racial and cultural barriers. We have seen men who were serving life sentences regain their freedom and become web developers, operations managers, establish non-profit organizations…and become social entrepreneurs.

These new social entrepreneurs are returning to their communities and beginning to ebb the tide of oppression. Empowerment and a strong sense of self-worth are becoming a reality for those who believe change is possible, and who allow innovation to enter their urban neighborhoods for the first time.

A refrain that is becoming ever present in the prison yard, with an increasing volume: “Hurt people, hurt people, and healed people, heal people.” Have we not all been hurt at some point in our lives? Likely, most of us have tripped up and made mistakes along the way, but we also know we’re capable of change when equipped with the right mindset and tools. People are not born to succeed, they learn to succeed.

We are healing families, providing hope, and establishing the foundation for people to realize their full potential. The Last Mile and many other causes will emerge through social innovation.

We have a lot of work to do. It is our calling.

The Last Mile — “Paving the Road to Success”


Originally published at thelastmile.org on September 29, 2014.

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