In­mates learn skills from Sil­i­con Val­ley pros

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY MARTHA MEN­DOZA

SAN QUENTIN, CALIF. | The bud­ding en­trepreneurs wear blue sweat pants la­beled “pris­oner” and huge, flap­ping blue shirts. Their doors are triple locked, and lunch is a stale peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wich. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, par­tic­i­pants in this grow­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley startup in­cu­ba­tor are barred from the In­ter­net.

None­the­less, the pro­gram, launched by suc­cess­ful tech en­trepreneurs for in­mates north of San Fran­cisco in the de­cay­ing San Quentin State Prison, has ex­panded, and a new ses­sion be­gan this month in the gritty, down­town Los An­ge­les Twin Tow­ers Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity.

The rea­son they’re grow­ing is sim­ple: Grad­u­ates, now trick­ling out of the pe­nal sys­tem, are land­ing real jobs at real dot-coms.

The rig­or­ous, six-month train­ing teaches care­fully se­lected in­mates the ins and outs of de­sign­ing and launch­ing tech­nol­ogy firms, us­ing lo­cal tal­ents as vol­un­teer in­struc­tors.

“We be­lieve that when in­car­cer­ated peo­ple are re­leased into the world, they need the tools to func­tion in to­day’s high-tech, wired world,” says co-founder Bev­erly Par­enti, who with her hus­band, Chris Redlitz, has launched thriv­ing com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing AdAuc­tion, the first online me­dia ex­change.

The pair were Sil­i­con Val­ley pioneers in the 1990s, and they tap their many high-level con­nec­tions to help with the prison pro­gram they started the pro­gram af­ter Mr. Redlitz was in­vited into San Quentin in 2011 for a guest lec­ture and was over­whelmed by the in­mates’ de­sire to learn.

“I fig­ured, ‘We work with young en­trepreneurs ev­ery day. Why not here?’” he re­called.

Af­ter dis­cus­sions with prison ad­min­is­tra­tors, Ms. Par­enti and Mr. Redlitz de­cided to add a prison-based firm to their port­fo­lio, nam­ing it for the pre­car­i­ous jour­ney from prison to home: the Last Mile.

Now, dur­ing twice-a-week evening lessons, stu­dents — many locked up be­fore smart­phones or Google — prac­tice tweet­ing, brain­storm new com­pa­nies and dis­cuss busi­ness books as­signed as home­work. Banned from the In­ter­net to pre­vent net­work­ing with other crim­i­nals, they take notes on key­board-like word processors or with pen­cil on pa­per.

The pro­gram is still “boot­strap­ping,” as its or­ga­niz­ers say, with just 12 grad­u­ates in its first two years and now a few dozen in classes in San Quentin and Twin Tow­ers. But the five grad­u­ates re­leased so far are work­ing in the tech sec­tor. They are guar­an­teed paid in­tern­ships if they can fin­ish the rig­or­ous train­ing pro­gram, which re­quires pre­req­ui­site cour­ses, proven so­cial skills and a life­time oath to lead by pos­i­tive ex­am­ple.

In one re­cent class, while thou­sands of in­mates ex­er­cised or played chess in San Quentin’s prison yard, stu­dents worked their way through a busi­ness model, pitch­ing dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy con­cepts.

“What are the dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels?” chal­lenged sem­i­nar leader An­drew Ka­plan, a prod­uct mar­ket­ing man­ager at LinkedIn. “What plat­forms or net­works do we need to think about? Who are we try­ing to en­gage?”

Tommy Win­frey, 35, who is serv­ing 25 years to life for sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and hopes to be paroled in 2018, ad­justed his eye­glasses and raised a tat­tooed arm. “I think an im­por­tant part of our brand is go­ing to be to give our cus­tomer a voice,” he said, sug­gest­ing they share ideas on so­cial me­dia.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An­drew Ka­plan, a prod­uct mar­ket­ing man­ager at Linkedin, leads a ses­sion of the Last Mile at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. The pro­gram trains se­lected pris­on­ers for even­tual em­ploy­ment in a paid in­tern­ship pro­gram within the Sil­i­con Val­ley tech­nol­ogy sec­tor.

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