Could The Next Mark Zuckerberg Be An Ex-Offender?

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Prison activists have long advocated that recidivism among ex-offenders goes down when proper rehabilitation and re-entry training is offered while they are still in prison.  The United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), approximately 2.3 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2010 – about 0.7 percent of adults in the U.S. resident population.  Bureau statistics also show that over two-thirds of ex-offenders were rearrested within three years of their initial release.

Most prisoners who are released are generally not given the necessary training and resources to properly reintegrate into life on the outside. Their criminal records make it impossible to access proper employment and housing, which in many cases can lead ex-offenders back into a life of crime.  One man in California is trying to change that outlook in the San Quentin State Prison.  Venture capitalist Chris Redlitz started the Last Mile program in 2011 not with the intention of any financial gain, but rather to teach inmates about tech entrepreneurship and other skills that could possibly help them get jobs in the tech sector once they are released from prison.

This can be quite a challenge.  For one, if the inmate has been incarcerated for at least the last 10 years, they most likely don’t know how to use a computer, a smart phone or the Internet.  Secondly, inmates are not allowed to use these items or run a business in prison.  While San Quentin is home to the state’s only death row, it also supports a vigorous learning environment with a unique college degree program.  So this would be a perfect space for the Last Mile program to grow.

The program graduated its first class last year, and it accepted 10 inmates out of 50 applicants for its latest batch.  The inmates meet twice a week to discuss their startup ideas and business plans.  Check out this video about a Demo Day they held last year.

“What’s frustrating is that all these companies in [Silicon] Valley, they’re ideas for the 1 or 10 percent,” said John Collison, co-founder of online payments startup Stripe who attended the Demo Day. The San Quentin inmates “were talking about urban obesity, or PTSD.  It’s a completely different perspective. We actually really need that.”

The inmates will have to wait until they are released to test out their business ideas. Many of the ideas are great, but what is the likelihood they would get funding?  Slim, but still possible.  This is not just because of their criminal records; venture capital funding is very hard to navigate.  It is even harder for minority and women led tech startups trying to pursue their business dreams in the very white and privileged worlds of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley.

It is possibly time to rethink what society’s role is in making sure ex-offenders don’t reoffend.  Some critics would argue that the lack of education, employment opportunities and familial structure need to be address before people become criminals and go to jail.  Others would argue that criminals should never be given another chance, whether inside or outside of prison, and that resources should be invested into those without a criminal record.

But the reality here is that most inmates do eventually leave prison.  If society expects ex-offenders to become productive, law-abiding citizens, then it will have to reconsider society’s role in making this happen.   Furthermore, creating a permanent underclass with ex-offenders is not in the best interest of supporting a strong economy in the long run.  There are many complexities to this issue that go beyond what we can discuss in this post.  However, giving ex-offenders who repent for their crimes and genuinely want a second chance at life through training programs like the Last Mile and job opportunities post incarceration could be one step in the right direction.

Not only is prison rehabilitation and re-entry training better for prisoners, but there is also a financial incentive for society as well.  According to Xconomy, incarceration costs US$50,000 per inmate per year in California, and the budget for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is almost US$10 billion.  With recidivism at nearly 70 percent, it would be more cost-efficient to make sure inmates at San Quentin don’t reoffend and are gainfully employed either with their own business or at a job in the tech sector, which is a rapidly growing field with a high demand for qualified technologists.

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