By Dana Simas, Public Information Officer
Despite having lived in the Marin County area the past 15 years, Chris Redlitz had never really thought about what he could offer the inmates behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison.
Then one day, two years ago, Redlitz visited San Quentin to give a presentation to approximately 50 inmates about the foundations of entrepreneurship, and he was shocked.
“I was struck by (the inmates’) intelligence, curiosity, and passion about rebuilding their future. It was very inspiring.” Redlitz said.
After the presentation Redlitz, along with Beverly Parenti, decided to lend their expertise to help young entrepreneurs build businesses inside San Quentin and founded The Last Mile program. Creating a tech venture inside a prison is a very different business-building scenario than outside, but Redlitz and Parenti were geared to help the start-up ventures.
Redlitz and Parenti run a technology business accelerator called “Kicklabs” that helps young entrepreneurs start their business by developing business plans, messaging, marketing, and attracting the target audience.
They thought about what they teach young entrepreneurs every day and how those business-building principles could be brought to the San Quentin inmates. The pair developed a curriculum that could work inside a state prison and tried to come up with business partners and associates who might be willing to offer their expertise and knowledge to the inmates in the program.
“We wanted to make sure that it resonated with the men, the business community, and the general public,” Redlitz said.
Before jumping into business planning and marketing, there was an education component of the curriculum, since many of the inmates had never used social media or other technological ways to reach an audience. Redlitz and Parenti have used their network of Silicon Valley contacts to offer educational opportunities for these inmates, as well as hands-on experience.
The eventual goal for the selected inmate participants is for them to receive paid internships in the Silicon Valley technology sector upon their release from state prison.
When in session, the group meets twice a week and the inmates are given homework assignments they must complete. One session is six months and first focuses on educating the inmates about how the digital world has evolved.
Participants also read books by digital-media experts and interact with guest speakers and mentors from technology companies.
Redlitz and Parenti also have created a way for the inmates to be active contributors to Internet social-media sites. Inmate participants do not have Internet access, but volunteers take the handwritten content from the inmates and post the content to blogs and Twitter. The volunteers also answer questions on behalf of the inmates.
“It’s evolved into a fantastic avenue for the men to express themselves and get feedback from people all over the world via social media,” Redlitz said.
For their final project, each participant must conceive a business idea and create a business plan that includes a technology component and social cause. Participants distill their plans into succinct five-minute pitches that are presented to an audience of invited guests from the outside and fellow inmates at Demo Day.
In the last two years The Last Mile program has graduated 13 inmates, and a few are starting to parole from prison. Several companies have been willing to hire these inmates as paid interns in the tech business community. Another four graduates are expected to be released by June.
Redlitz and Parenti hope to expand the innovative program to more California prisons and even to other states.
To view the Last Mile website, go to https://thelastmile.org/. You may have to use a non-CDCR computer to view the site.