Within the same walls as the largest death row in America, The Last Mile stands as a beacon of hope that could fuel change in the US prison system

San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco, is many things. It’s the western world’s largest death row – a powerful symbol of how broken the US criminal justice system is – where nearly 750 condemned men, some innocent, await execution at the State’s hands.

 TLM co-founders and some of the program’s released graduates,   who came back to San Quentin to celebrate the new facility

Paradoxically, for thousands of other men incarcerated there, San Quentin is also a powerful symbol of what the criminal justice system should look like. Prisoners carry backpacks and books around the yard. They have access to numerous programs from trauma-based group therapy to money management and university classes to professional skill development. And two entrepreneurs from San Francisco, Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz, are quickly scaling what what may be the brightest beacon of hope yet – The Last Mile.

The Last Mile (TLM) got its start as an entrepreneurship program, quickly expanded into a tech training hub, and rolled out the first ever computer coding curriculum in a US prison. The team just launched The Last Mile Works, where TLM graduates can earn a market wage of $16.49 – the highest hourly wage in the US prison system – building out client-driven websites. Last month, TLM invited the Virgin Unite team to a ribbon-cutting of their latest milestone, a new tech center which greatly expands the program’s capacity.

Inmates and community members celebrating graduation

Virgin Unite partnered in funding TLM Works and operations at the new tech center with the hope that they could prove and scale their model. The new tech center’s opening and graduation of TLM’s latest cohort come at the same time as a new study on how difficult it is to find work after being incarcerated.

According to the Prison Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people was 27.3 per cent, compared with just 5.2 per cent unemployment for the general public. Skill gaps, occupational licensing laws, and stigma serve as serious barriers to stable, living-wage jobs. Combine all that with being barred from many public services and burdened with years of onerous parole and probation requirements, it’s no wonder nearly half of the men and women released from prison fail and go back.

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Inmates and community members celebrating graduation

The Last Mile is still relatively new, with 50 graduates released so far, but none have returned to prison and many have found well-paying jobs in tech companies. TLM’s classes have built a bridge from incarceration in facilities with no internet access to jobs as software engineers with some of the fastest growing tech companies.

TLM Works is breaking the exploitive prison labor model, giving participants the opportunity to save thousands of dollars to aid their success upon release. And they’re chipping away at the stigma by bringing CEOs, investors, and engineers inside to share stories; and by sending upskilled, enthusiastic graduates into the world as ambassadors for what’s possible, upon their release.

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TLM graduate Aly Tamboura, who now works at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, learning about a TLM participant’s development project

So far, The Last Mile is expanding to other facilities in California, and just opened their first-out-of-state operation at a women’s facility in Indiana. If it goes well, they plan to scale to other facilities and other states quickly. TLM is not alone in delivering high-quality programs that offer real hope for rehabilitation and a second chance, but there are far too few out there. We couldn’t be more excited about The Last Mile’s efforts to scale, forge new models, and light beacons of hope for the millions affected by the US’ broken criminal justice system.

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