Silicon Valley Meets San Quentin At The Last Mile Demo Day

5/24/12Follow @wroush

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in development, and James Houston’s company, Teen Tech Hub, is set to open in 2013.

Like all of The Last Mile projects, these two efforts have technological components, but they also address social causes. Cardozo is taking on a problem that hits close to home: the high unemployment rate among former prisoners. “There are 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, including 137,000 in California,” Cardozo pointed out in his presentation. “Most of us will get out, but only half of us will get a job.

Collaborative Benefit plans to offer a free online service that will help employers evaluate former prisoners as potential employees. Taking inspiration from LinkedIn, the service is designed to showcase members’ talents and accomplishments through online profiles, social media updates, and video interviews. Applicants will be screened before they’re listed, and will get help finding full-time or part-time positions that match their skills.

Cardozo said that as the program matures, men who have already found employment through the program will be called upon to counsel incoming participants. “Our graduates will become lifers in a different way,” he joked. Among the first companies to sign up are BTS Communications, an advertising and social media agency housed within a Los Angeles drug treatment center, and Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon-based breadmaker founded by former convict Dave Dahl, who attended last week’s ceremony. It’s expected to go live on the Web soon.

Houston’s organization, Teen Tech Hub, will be an after-school technology training program aimed at pre-teens and teens in minority communities. In California, 58 percent of 9th graders in minority schools don’t go on to graduate, often because they lack social support from adults, Houston said in his presentation. “Think about the most important people in your world growing up,” he said. “Now think about the world without them.” That’s the world most of the kids in Teen Tech Hub’s target market inhabit, he said.

The program will be a “safe haven” between school and home where youth can get advanced software training for up to two hours each day and join classes that meet twice a week, Houston said. Financial support will come from corporate sponsors, and Teens in Tech, a Mountain View, CA-based entrepreneurship program for teens, will run monthly seminars on coding, marketing, and design. (Daniel Brusilovsky, the founder of Teens in Tech, was one of the Last Mile program’s volunteer mentors.) Houston himself will be eligible for parole in 2013.

It was meeting Houston, Redlitz says, that sparked the idea for the Last Mile program more than a year ago. He’d been invited inside San Quentin by Kathleen Jackson, a former teacher and school administrator who has spent five years volunteering at the prison, most recently as an advisor to an inmate group called T.R.U.S.T. (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Techniques). “I went to a T.R.U.S.T. graduation, and they had food afterward, and we sat with seven of the men including James Houston, and I was really intrigued by him and his story,” Redlitz says. “A month later I came out and did a short program on entrepreneurship. The response to that was so overwhelming that I really started thinking about what we could do.”

The main argument for programs like The Last Mile, Redlitz says, isn’t a sentimental one or even an ethical one; it’s an economic one. Incarceration costs $50,000 per inmate per year, and the budget for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is almost $10 billion. That’s 30 percent more than the state spends on education. Yet the department is clearly struggling with the “rehabilitation” part of its mission: the recidivism rate for released prisoners is 70 percent. “That is a bad investment,” says Redlitz, who also runs the Kicklabs accelerator program in San Francisco. “That is what motivated me first. Also, I have some resources, and I thought I could create something that would start small and see if it would resonate.”

There’s no question that it has resonated, at least with the six members of the initial Last Mile class. Inmate David Monroe told me that before The Last Mile, he’d never even heard of modern conveniences like QR codes, which now figure prominently in his business plan. With help from the Last Mile volunteers and from each other, he said, the participants have gained the confidence to succeed in the world after their release. “I committed murder. Society judges us for our worst actions,” Monroe said. “But so many of the inmates are like us. They want to do better. It’s great to know there’s hope, even for the worst of the worst.”

Monroe, by the way, is one of the Last Mile participants who have become minor Internet luminaries through their posts on Quora and Twitter, mostly pertaining to life inside San Quentin. Marc Bodnick, a former private equity investor who now runs product marketing and businesss operations at Quora, said at the ceremony that the Last Mile participants’ posts stand out because of their authenticity and thoughtfulness. “On our site these guys are celebrities; nobody gets up-voted faster,” he said. “What the Last Mile folks have done is shine a light on a world most of us don’t know very well.”

Cavitt, another prominent Quora contributor, provided perhaps the most poignant moment at the Last Mile ceremony in a spoken-word performance of a poem he had written. It was about his development from a lost young offender into a wiser, older man. “I am not my worst decision,” Cavitt said. “I had to stop screaming in order to start living.”

And that may be the biggest argument for The Last Mile, which Redlitz hopes to expand to a larger group of inmates at San Quentin and other prisons in California. Whether or not any of the program’s participants become Internet tycoons, they’re building on their talents and looking for ways to give back to society. The Last Mile program can “help bridge the gap between incarceration and freedom, if you put in the work,” Jackson said at the ceremony. “These men have put in the work.”

Update 7/27/12: Here’s a video recorded at the Last Mile demo day.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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