PRISON REFORM: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF A TECH INCUBATOR INSIDE A PRISON

Al Berzins

Most of us living in Maroubra district are aware that Long Bay Gaol is nearby. There are the stark watchtowers, razor wire walls and the tragic procession of family visitors from Long Bay bus stop but most give scant regard to what is happening in gaol unless we have a family member or friend 'Inside'. It has been politically expedient Australia-wide for governments to be 'Tough On Crime'. This has led to an inhumane sentencing regimes and judges who are out of touch with what it is really like to serve an extra long 'lag' for eg. non-violent crime. Coupled with this injustice is Mandatory Sentencing and Truth in Sentencing which leave prisoners with no hope of earning reduced sentences. Anyone who has had any contact with the prison system (this writer included) finds that most prisoners are young, from minority ethnic groups and most are serving extra long sentences for non-violent crime. 50% are Repeat Offenders. There is little opportunity 'inside' for prisoners to reform, rehabilitate, educate or train. Prison Officers could be trained to fill some of these roles instead of being just 'glorified baby-sitters.

On a much more positive note is the enclosed story from San Quenton Prison in the U.S. sadly a brilliant outlier and not the norm:

The Last Mile, a documentary short looks at a tech start-up incubator in a very unlikely place: San Quentin prison. Founded by venture capitalist Chris Redlitz, it draws on volunteers from the tech world who teach inmates about the digital technology that is rapidly advancing in the outside world, but forbidden within the prison’s walls. 

Heracio Harts served 8 1/2 years in San Quentin for involuntary manslaughter. The most powerful piece of Heracio’s journey was his founding participation in The Last Mile program at San Quentin.

It’s a six-month program, and there are two meetings per week. During those six months, participants get to talk to different community leaders and business leaders… People of power, people of success who are there to teach how to be successful as well. The encouragement in and of itself is something that should be replicated. The Last Mile goes further—actually participation in social media, to hear from the public, hear their responses . Those things really are necessary in prison. 

Trainees did five or six tweets per week, on paper and they would be posted for them. It was like ‘Oh, this is how you get people to know you and then you can start building your own personal brand, pretty open, however still have that anxiety of being judged. You want to tell people the raw and uncut things that’s going on in your life. You don’t look for pity, but you think that people may judge you…. You still voice how you feel and things that you’ve done and you’re accepted. And you know, it’s kind of scary at first. But you know, it does help. It definitely helps to be transparent. It connects you to the world to know that you’re not the only one that made bad choices. There are a bunch of people that have made bad choices. Some people just didn’t get caught, but it kind of gives you a little more strength to be open and be more brave about it because you know that you can help someone else through your experiences. 

I remember one of the best responses that I received… I drew the parallels between living in a local community and being in prison—low-income communities are the toughest prisons, because you had guns and knives too. You can lose your life a lot more easily in the projects. So there were a lot of responses from people just telling me that they’d never looked at it like that.

You’re locked up and you don’t have control over anything, but you do have control over your willpower. And you lean on that to overcome things that some people would suffer breakdowns from. But you learn to be more patient and present and you learn to stay focused.  “What job was I ever gonna get? Who’s gonna hire me coming out of prison? This is the only way I’m going to be able to make it, by having the entrepreneurial spirit and having the know-how to start my own business.” There’s a lot of job placement that happens. What’s really good for the guys who return back home is that we’ve been able to get a job in a tech community. It gives those other guys that are inside prison walls hope that when they are released they will have support and the community will welcome them.… so that when they are out they can get a job and hold it down. I’m grateful that we have a voice and that our voices are being heard. I really hope that it will change public’s perception of returning citizens.'