From Inmate to Intern: Meet the Program That Pairs Prisoners With Tech Start-Ups
When a pair of entrepreneurs noticed a growing economic and social problem they knew they had to do something about it.
The problem: The amount California spends on a weak prison system.
As reported in Think Justice: ”[I]ndividual inmates cost the state roughly $45,000. This coming fiscal year, corrections costs will exceed $9 billion.” The economic and social problem only gets worse because many of the inmates are previous offenders or will return to prison. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, in California, “within three years nearly 2 out of 3 ex-convicts commit another crime and end up back in prison.”
Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti’s solution: Develop a program, named The Last Mile, that keeps prisoners out of prison. Redlitz and Parenti give inmates an alternative to a prison cell by introducing them to the world of technology start-ups.
- It’s promoted as an industry with a level playing field. Yet, as this infographic shows, African-American, Latino and American Indian faces are largely missing from the field.
- It’s growing.
- Technology is a vital skill; some inmates have been incarcerated prior to the introduction of the world wide web.
- Looking to the future, ideas and innovation are highly valued in the industry. Sometimes they are valued more than what a criminal background check reveals.
Why Help Inmates?
Inmates have largely already repaid their debt to society. Not every crime carries the same weight, yet, a criminal record usually carries the same scarlet letter. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains, despite paying for their crimes, most inmates are treated like ‘second-class citizens.’ Citing a 2008 Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, only “45 percent of [study] participants were employed eight months after their release, despite 65 percent being hired at some point.”
University of California research revealed more information about inmates:
- 40 percent didn’t have a high school diploma or GED.
- One-third had a physical or mental disability.
- Over half of the research participants explained that they were under the influence of drugs during the month of their arrest.
What Does “The Last Mile“ Do?
In 2011, The Last Mile teamed up with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and launched the first wave of the program at the San Quentin State Prison.
The Last Mile exists to fill a void “because one of the most difficult, and often neglected, aspects of rehabilitation is the transition from inside the prison walls to functioning successfully in the free world. It is truly the ‘final step’ to freedom.” While the program only works with male inmates now, it does have plans to work with men and women.
The inmates have to go through a rigorous selection process in order to join the program. The chosen inmates are prepared for a paid internship in the Silicon Valley technology sector.
Over 6 months, inmates meet and learn the ins and outs about:
- the high-tech industry
- social media
- communication skills
- creating and operating a business
The program also teaches its participants how to build their online presence and online brand. Some inmates go from never seeing a Smartphone to learning to tweet. While participants don’t have full internet access all of the time, they can handwrite or type their personal brand messages; The Last Mile volunteers will later upload their messages for them.
The Last Mile culminates with Demo Day. In a possibly life-changing final project, “each participant must conceive a business idea and create a business plan that includes a technology component and social cause.” Then from a prison cell to a Shark Tank set-up, they will present their business idea in a five-minute pitch to a live audience, with some potential investors sitting in the crowd.
The Last Mile Successes
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, “five graduates of the San Quentin program are working in high tech.” One graduate runs his own web consulting firm. The Last Mile is looking to expand its reach and impact. The program has made its way to the Los Angeles Twin Towers Correctional Facility and is working with 15 new participants.
It looks like The Last Mile is creating a new kind of green mile (with lots of green cash) for prison inmates. Why not give former inmates the opportunity to not only repay their debts, but rejuvenate their local economies?
Photo Credit: 826 Paranormal