There are certain experiences that you go through in life which make you pause and reflect on the bigger picture. A few days ago, I had the unique experience to go to one of the most notable and oldest state prisons in California, San Quentin State Prison, and speak to a group of inmates as part of The Last Mile program.
A few months ago, I was talking with Chris Redlitz of Transmedia Capital about his new program The Last Mile, and his plans and goals with the program. Fast-forward to March 13th, 2012, and I find myself at the entrance to a prison which is home to some of America’s most notorious criminals. Words can’t describe the experience of walking into a prison and not knowing what was going to happen.
After such a powerful experience, I wanted to write a blog post to share my thought and try to bring light to some of the men that I met at San Quentin.
First of all, when you arrive at San Quentin, you go through multiple security checkpoints. The first was mainly for cars, and the second for all people coming through the prison. I was only allowed to bring three things with me: my car keys, drivers license, and a notebook. I also wasn’t allowed to wear any clothing that had blue or yellow colors, since that’s what the inmates wear.
Once we got through the second security checkpoint, there was one more door that we had to go through … the door that took you into the main yard of San Quentin. When I walked through the door, I had a mix of emotions- scared, nervous, hesitant. I had no idea what to expect or what would happen. Then we just started walking. Chris showed me the chapel where The Last Mile’s “Demo Day” is going to be held, and we walked by a group of inmates. All of them said “hi” to us, and asked how we were doing. I responded with “hi” and also asked them how they were doing.
We continued walking towards a group of buildings where we would eventually meet five men; David, James, JC, Kenyatta and Phil. We walked into the room, shook hands, said hello to everyone, and started the session.
It was at that point that I realized one of the most important lessons from this entire experience: David, James, JC, Kenyatta and Phil are real people. They are just like me. They have interests, hopes and dreams. A seven-digit number doesn’t define them. They are defined by who they are, and what decisions they make in their future.
As a society, we look negatively at these men for the actions of their past. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be punished for wrong doings, but it’s what you do after you serve your punishment that determines who you are as a person. If I had been in a room with these five men anywhere else, I would have never guessed that they were criminals.
Each man had his own unique characteristics. David is a big 49ers fan, and really enjoys all kinds of sports. James is very soft spoken, but extremely well respected. JC is literary master. Kenyatta is eager to learn. And Phil just lights up when you talk about music. These men were unique but all shared a drive to change their future.
They were all extremely polite, and excited to learn. They’re thankful for The Last Mile, and the ability to turn their life around. These are all qualities that many of us share.
When the session began, Chris went over the agenda, we talked about what had happened since the last meeting, and what was going to happen today. He introduced me, and I briefly told the story of how I started Teens in Tech Labs and what I’ve learned over the last four years since starting the company.
They all asked questions about how I got started, the reasons why Teens in Tech exists and many other questions. At this point, I realized something else; these men are intelligent. They’re asking good questions. And then I just started smiling. I was very surprised but excited and impressed at the same time.
I had no idea what to expect going into this experience, and now I’m surrounded by five incredible men who are truly inspirational, and want to change their lives.
After some more questions, Chris asked each person to stand up and pitch their business idea. As each of them did, I was I even more surprised and impressed. They pitched their ideas better than some of the pitches I’ve seen at some of the biggest tech events! One was a unique barbershop for college kids, another was an inner city technology center for young kids, a t-shirt company for young kids to express themselves, an interactive experience for watching sporting events, and a mobile recording studio for musicians.
All were great ideas that had a lot of meaning behind them. I was blown away yet again. We gave each idea a critique, feedback, and kept discussing ideas for their businesses. It was the ultimate brainstorming session.
We only had so much time for the session, since certain men had to go inside and get checked-in, etc., but I walked away for a newfound respect for these inmates. If these are the five selected people to go through The Last Mile, imagine all the others who have great ideas for businesses for when they are released from San Quentin.
After everyone left, JC stayed around and recited some of his amazing poetry. He’d been incarcerated since he was 17 years-old, and has learned a lot of lessons during his incarceration. He translates those lessons into words, and is true inspiration for many men at San Quentin. I asked him numerous questions about life inside the prison, and his experience over the last 17 years. I got a glimpse into what it’s *really* like to be an inmate at San Quentin State Prison.
As I left, I walked away with a new found respect for the men of The Last Mile. I’d like to thank Chris, Beverly and Kathleen for inviting me to be a part of this remarkable experience. I’m proud to be coming back to San Quentin in a few weeks to help with the pitches one more time, and then for the big day … Demo Day.
“Inspired” would be an understatement to describe this experience. I hope that at some point we can all look back on this program, look at these men, and be proud of what they’ve accomplished. No matter what your circumstances are, there is a way to dream big and go for it.