San Quentin, Tech Incubator

The Last Mile is the first to teach about tech entrepreneurship in a U.S. prison, according to its founders.
Georgia Wells for The Wall Street Journal

Sam Hearnes used to be a gang member. Now he’s a startup to venture capitalists. From inside California’s San Quentin State Prison.

On a recent sunny day 20 miles north of SoMa neighborhood–home to many of the region’s tech startups–Hearnes cleared his throat before a crowd of investors. “If your child went missing today, law enforcement would not be able to rally people instantly,” he said. But in the case of abductions, “time is what makes the difference between .”

Inmates are to join The Last Mile in part because they worry about their job prospects upon release.
Georgia Wells for The

Street Journal

His app, The Village, could fix this, Hearnes claimed. An online command center to organize search efforts, the app would rally people as soon as someone disappears, he says. It offers lists of residents and nearby drones available to help scour for missing people, as well as for missing-person posters.

Hearnes, who is serving time for second-degree , was one of eight inmates pitching startups at San Quentin in late March. They were all part of The Last Mile, a six-month tech entrepreneurship in the prison. Founded by husband-and-wife team Chris Redlitz, a venture capitalist, and Beverly Parenti, who directs for a tech accelerator, the nonprofit organization teaches about the technology they may have missed while behind bars. The inmates then develop a startup idea and learn to it. Redlitz and Parenti say theirs is the first tech entrepreneurship in a U.S. prison. They also run a program teaching computer programming to San Quentin inmates called Code 7370.

Part of the challenge in teaching entrepreneurship at San Quentin is that none of the inmates in the , as far as Redlitz knows, has ever been online. (Though cell phones are sometimes smuggled into prisons.)

Part of the challenge in teaching entrepreneurship here is that as far as Redlitz knows, none of the inmates in the has ever been online.
Georgia Wells for The Wall Street Journal

He videos and guest speakers to explain how gadgets and apps are designed and built.

“I had to to the guys about smartphones. They’d never seen one!” said M.C. Hammer, rapper, entrepreneur and board member of The Last Mile.

No term sheets were exchanged on the spot, but venture capitalists (and identical twins) George and Gary Arabian said they would consider investing in some of the startups . “When we make decisions about early-stage investments, we look for people who have alignment in life with their work. That’s what we see here,” George said.

Entrepreneurs often seek to improve something in their own lives. This was no different for the inmates, though their grievances didn’t have to do with hailing taxis or finding . Instead, many zeroed in on the moments when their lives veered off track, with the hope that new apps could prevent others from following in their footsteps. Jason Jones, for example, serving a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, was recruited by the University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon and University of Colorado Boulder when he was in high school to play college football. But he didn’t qualify for the universities academically. The app he pitched was intended to help parents and to monitor the academic progress of young athletes.

Darnell Hill now packages shipments for e-commerce firm ePantry. He spent 24 years in prison for kidnapping and robbery.
Georgia Wells for The Wall Street Journal

Darnell Hill a graduate of The Last Mile, owned a dry in Oakland before spending 24 years in prison for kidnapping and robbery. Paroled in October, 2014, he works packaging shipments for e-commerce firm ePantry. “I came from selling toilet paper for two soups in San Quentin to selling toilet paper for an e-commerce company,” he said with a chuckle.

Inmates are motivated to join the in part because they worry about their job prospects upon release. Heracio Harts, an alum of The Last Mile who served eight years for manslaughter, got out two years ago. “When I came to prison, I thought no one was going to hire me, so I thought I was going to have to start my own thing,” Harts said. After leaving San Quentin, he landed an internship at fund-raising platform Rally.org. Now he is an manager for digital platform Doz.

There’s a financial to teaching these men to be square businessmen. It costs California about $60,000 a year to house a state-prison ; over 60% are re-arrested within three years of their release. Ten members of The Last Mile have been released from San Quentin since 2011. None has returned to prison.

The prisoners may have short when it comes to above-board professional experience, but for many this wasn’t their first encounter with business development. Jones says his pre-incarceration work was “on the spectrum of illegal activities, but very entrepreneurial.”

Hearnes . “The passion is still the same, but now we have a more viable, legitimate product.”