It’s well-known that the United States imprisons more people than any other country. Too often it seems we throw people in prison and forget about them. They’re wayward people who deserve punishment for their bad deeds, right? But, what happens after prisoners get released? According to a 2011 Pew Center study: “45.4 percent of people released from prison in 1999 and 43.3 percent of those sent home in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years, either for committing a new crime or for violating conditions governing their release.”
California’s recidivism rates are some of the highest in the country. California also spends a lot on its prison system. The state spends more money locking people up than it does funding higher education. Prison reform in the US is necessary; what we have now isn’t working well.
Last night I went to an alumni mixer for my business school. My friend and I mingled, exchanged pleasantries, answered the question oft-asked in SF, “Who do you work for?” and eventually landed in chat circle with three others. A man named H shared the story of his career ascent: “I made some bad choices in my life that I take responsibility for. I wasted a lot of time. I spent 8 years in prison.”
Say what now? Prison? Like Oz-style with shanking and what not?
Yes, prison. San Quentin prison. You know, where Johnny Cash held his first prison concert?
He went on to tell us about the program he joined in prison that helped him reset his life. It’s a program called The Last Mile that focuses on teaching prisoners business skills and providing project-based learning experiences. They eventually transition into a paid internship with one of the many technology companies in the Bay Area.
As I listened to H speak, it impressed me how forthcoming he was about his past and the path that led him to this point. He admitted to having made mistakes, but took the steps to change the course of his life for the better. Through The Last Mile, not only is he now employed with an up-and-coming technology startup, he had the opportunity to meet and learn from top leaders in the industry, the kind of people with whom ladder climbers dream of rubbing elbows. Had he not shared his story, I would have assumed he’d taken a more traditional route to reach his current state. His appearance and demeanor were professional and he spoke knowledgeably about the work he does. He enthusiastically praised the program and seemed grateful for the opportunity.
I didn’t ask what led to his imprisonment. It’s unimportant (to me). What’s important is that in the present he’s working hard to carve out a fruitful life for himself.
I greatly appreciate knowing that organizations like The Last Mile exist. It’s one kind of reformation our prisons need. People aren’t disposable. Prison shouldn’t be a place people go to learn how to become better criminals or lead to a vicious cycle from which people can’t escape. As H said, paraphrasing one of the speakers he’d met: “We recycle cans and bottles, why can’t we recycle people? Give them another chance?”
I wish H the best. I hope there are many more out there like him, being given a second chance at life.