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Tech Startup Gives Prisoners A Second Chance

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"Tech Startup Gives Prisoners A Second Chance"

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In 2010, entrepreneurs Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti identified a major economic problem in California: excessive spending on the prison system. Every year, individual inmates cost the state roughly $45,000. This coming fiscal year, corrections costs will exceed $9 billion. Because so much of the prison population is comprised of previous inmates who are re-incarcerated, Redlitz and Parenti launched a start-up to turn that trend around and send former prisoners into the growing tech industry instead.

So far, the ground-breaking program has yielded remarkable results for former inmates, whose criminal histories typically present an onerous obstacle to finding employment. Of the six individuals who completed the program and have been released from prison, five have jobs or paid internships in the tech industry. The sixth founded a consulting firm of his own.

The Last Mile offers a space for prisoners to learn business development strategies – particularly ones pertaining to the tech industry – and navigate social media. According to the program website, the goal is to “build skills in relevant areas for employment in the high-tech sector, including communication, business formation and operations, and foster confidence and a sense of hope that they can succeed as free men.”

Participants are chosen through a competitive application process, and attend classes twice a week for six months. The curriculum includes reading about digital media and generating material for social media platforms, including Twitter and Quora. Participants are also visited by representatives from major powerhouses, such as LinkedIn, who provide insight into the tech field. At the end of the course, each student must develop a business idea that necessitates the use of technology and advances a “social cause,” and present it to a large group of peers and outside visitors. Those who take the course argue that prisoners are particularly suited for enterprise, because of their ability to overcome challenges and demonstrate “[resilience].”

Beyond economic advantages to the state, rehabilitation programs can mean the difference between coping with life outside of prison walls or having to return to them. Recidivism, or committing a new offense after one’s release from prison, is a salient issue in California – roughly two-thirds of individuals who leave the prison system return. The trend is attributed to several factors, including a lack of education and job training, impaired communication skills, the inability to receive assistance from government-funded programs, and social stigma. From a financial standpoint, employers are often unwilling to hire people with criminal histories, and released prisoners earn significantly less money than they did before serving jail time. As 75 percent of inmates suffer from addiction, drug use is another cause for concern – particularly because thousands of people are imprisoned for drug-related, non-violent crimes. Resources, like The Last Mile, help to alleviate those constraints.

In addition to smoothing the reentry process and boosting prisoners’ self-esteem, rehabilitation and reentry programs serve a larger economic purpose. In 2011, the Pew Center on the States revealed that cutting recidivism by 10 percent in California can save $233 million – a claim reiterated by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

On Wednesday, Harris launched a new project to address the trend, by establishing the Division of Recividism Reduction and Re-Entry. The new office is tasked with researching the challenges posed to newly-released prisoners and procuring funds to create rehabilitation programs throughout California. Nevertheless, recent budget cuts to prison facilities have resulted in decreased funding for such initiatives.

In recent years, California has drawn fire for its mismanagement of the prison system, including exorbitant spending, overcrowding, and the inhumane treatment of inmates.

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