By Nicole Stinson
The Last Mile began in 2010 at San Quentin Prison. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For those whose fate it houses, prison creates the greatest of despairs. Serving time brings the end of hope, a good reputation, and a future of a life beyond the bars. To the outside world, these prisoners are defined by their crimes even after release.
Despite being a new initiative, a number of graduates already attest to the program’s success. Redlitz tells BTR that seven of their graduates have already received employment in tech companies around San Francisco.
However, for those who have completed The Last Mile it is much more than getting a job upon release.
“It truly has changed the trajectory of my life,” says Kenyatta Leal, who recently graduated The Last Mile and is now working at Rocket Space as a team leader.
Graduates of the program function like a brotherhood or fraternity, which Leal describes as an “empowered connected community” and a “commitment for life.”
Outside of prison, they still meet weekly to catch up and help each other out.
“It has helped me greatly in transitioning from an incarcerated setting back to society,” he tells BTR.
Using social media platforms such as Twitter, Quora, and various blogging sites, inmates are able to re-brand themselves as entrepreneurs. Volunteers aid the online process, as outside sources are needed to upload handwritten answers as prisoners are unable to access the internet while serving sentences.
Leal, who was one of the first to graduate from The Last Mile, explains that through building an online presence he was able to take the focus away from his crimes and court cases, particularly if his name was Googled.
“I came to the understanding that I have redeemable qualities and I am a human being. If I make the right choices, I can take something like prison and make it something positive,” he declares.
Participants of the program do not try and hide their pasts. They openly answer questions on Twitter and Quora about their crimes and experiences in prison.
Leal was even awarded a Shorty Award for his answer to “What does the first day of a 5+ year prison sentence feel like?” on Quora while incarcerated in 2013. The Shorty Awards honor the best of social media posts, with past recipients including Jimmy Kimmel, Michelle Obama, Neil Patrick Harris, and CNN.
His posting described the morning he was transferred from county to state prison. “When I turned back around to cuff up, my cellmate was sitting there crying. I will never forget that look of hopelessness on his face and I can only imagine the look on mine,” Leal wrote as part of his very detailed account.
The Last Mile program is highly selective, Chris Redlitz explains. Last year only 15 of the 200 applicants were selected. To apply, inmates need to have completed a college degree before they can fill out the initial written paperwork and progress onto several rounds of interviews.
He also tells BTR that inmates convicted of gang-related murder are not restricted from the program but their time of release influences whether they are accepted.
Kenyatta Leal had been the recipient of a life sentence for the possession of a firearm as part of California’s former Three Strikes Law in 1995. The previous two strikes had been burglaries. He appealed his life sentence after the law was amended in 2012 and then was released July last year.
The Last Mile’s six-month curriculum includes training on internet navigation and public relations, as well as how to use social media. At the end the participants are required to present a business model for a project they have been working on as part of “Demo Day” to an audience of business executives, media representatives, and other supporters.
Leal tells BTR that his business model was called “Coach Potato” and was a mobile app designed for American football fans. He pitched that users could submit play predictions and earn points; an accumulation of points could then lead to prizes.
Prior to founding The Last Mile, Redlitz says that neither he nor Beverley had worked with the corrective services. It was only after giving a talk on business at San Quentin in 2010 and receiving positive feedback from the inmates that he pitched the idea to Beverley.
“She thought I was crazy,” he chuckles.
Now the program has expanded to include the Los Angeles county jails and there are plans to extend into women’s prisons this year. Preliminary talks in the United Kingdom have also occurred.
“They are not bad people, they just made some bad decisions,” Redlitz highlights.
Graduates of The Last Mile prove they are more than the crimes they were incarcerated for. It’s time prison changed to embody these successes.