How The Last Mile and Rhode Island want to lift people up, from prison to tech jobs

Katie Mulvaney, Providence Journal
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: ‘This is my last chance’: How an ACI program wants to lift people from prison to tech jobs.

CRANSTON – It’s a Friday morning just before noon and 15 men are quietly hunched over computers in the medium-security unit at the Adult Correctional Institutions.

Occasionally, an orange desk chair wheels across the room as one student helps another with a problem. They collaborate in hushed voices.

It’s been five days since the state Department of Corrections unveiled its latest initiative: The Last Mile, a national program first started at San Quentin prison teaching coding and computer skills for a better chance at getting a job after release.

“I’m impressed with the work these guys are doing, and they’re committed to it,” said Lee Allison, chief of program development at the ACI, who is volunteering as interim facilitator of the training program.

Screen Shot 2024 05 30 At 4.47.56 Pm

The yearlong effort to bring The Last Mile to Rhode Island started at the urging of state Sen. Louis DiPalma.

“I’m excited about the possibilities of what this can do for those who are incarcerated. Hopefully, they won’t recidivate,” said DiPalma, D-Little Compton, Middletown, Newport and Tiverton.

With a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, Interim Corrections Director Wayne Salisbury Jr., is also on board.

“It’s putting tools in their toolbox,” Salisbury said. “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t want to see them come back.”

The recidivism rate in Rhode Island has stubbornly hovered around 50% since officials started tracking it in 2004.

But there’s been progress in recent years.

  • According to a March 2023 corrections report, of 2,300 people released in 2019, 45% returned as sentenced offenders within three years.
  • That was the lowest reported recidivism rate in the decade since the department began tracking the numbers.

Studies have shown that if a person who served time can remain in the community for three years, their likelihood of returning diminishes greatly, according to the report.

“My job on the inside is to give them the skills,” Salisbury said.

The Last Mile originated in the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, California’s oldest prison. Opened in 1852, the storied maximum-security facility for men overlooks San Francisco Bay.

In 2010, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Chris Redlitz was asked to speak at the prison about entrepreneurship.

“We were always curious what goes on behind those walls,” Beverly Parenti, Redlitz’s wife and business partner, recalled.

Redlitz told her he’d be back in a half-hour, only to be greeted by a standing-room-only crowd at San Quentin and bombarded by questions and business plans. He returned home to ask Parenti to join him in starting a program at the prison. “I chalked it up to one of Chris’s crazy ideas,” Parenti said.

The Last Mile launched that year, and the couple dedicated themselves to teaching entrepreneurial skills at San Quentin twice a week for the next two years. A few years later, The Last Mile transformed to teach the men about computer programming.

“There was such a demand for recruits. … Having a job is key to successful reentry,” Parenti said.

Screen Shot 2024 05 30 At 4.49.22 Pm

In 2015, The Last Mile expanded to Ironwood State Prison, a medium-security facility in the California desert, and a year later it launched at Folsom Women’s Facility. In 2018, The Last Mile opened its first program outside California at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

All the while, Redlitz and Parenti established partnerships and a support pipeline in the tech sector. They made overtures to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of the photo-sharing website Flickr and the messaging platform Slack; and other tech giants.

  • Today, The Last Mile reports a 75% employment rate among the 1,200 people who have completed the program since 2010.
  • A total of 700 alumni have returned to society.
  • The program operates 13 facilities in seven states, including at a medium-security complex in Massachusetts.

The Last Mile is more than just a computer-skills training program.

It offers mentoring, job coaching, an ever-expanding alumni network and unconditional support as graduates readjust to society, sometimes after decades of confinement.

After years behind bars, the men are often faced upon release with the temptations that landed them there in the first place.

“Our job is to lift them back up,” Parenti said. The program’s mentors offer lived experience.

More broadly, the program wants to change conventional thinking about people reintegrating into the community from prison. It provides hope for people who are incarcerated and approaching their release date.

“They say `We forget we are in prison,’” Parenti said. “This is not one-and-done. It’s always evolving. We want this program to result in a job.”

  • Graduates have a 75% employment rate, according to the organization.
  • The program has established hiring partnerships with companies including Slack, SiriusXM, Zoom, VMWare, Dropbox, Plaid, GoodRx, Pilot, Cash App, Lob, Bitwise, Checkr and more.
  • Part of the program’s objective will be generating hiring partners in Rhode Island.

There is an application and interview process to be accepted to The Last Mile. People must not have been disciplined for a year and have earned a GED or higher.

They must be within three years of their release date, Executive Director Kevin McCracken said.

Students are given laptops, and the organization provides the classroom with computer monitors and audio-visual equipment. The students use a closed-circuit computer system and cannot access the internet. There is also a robust help desk, often staffed by alumni.

Screen Shot 2024 05 30 At 4.50.19 Pm

Aron Roy, 34, is a graduate of The Last Mile, released last year after 15 years at San Quentin. He was 23 when he found himself in trouble and confined at the county jail. He began contemplating his life, knowing that when he returned to society he would have limited job options as a former offender.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for work,” Roy said. “I just had something bigger for my life planned.”

After he was sentenced, he was transferred to San Quentin, where he became interested in The Last Mile. He began covering it as a reporter at the San Quentin News, a newspaper written by people at San Quentin.

“It would put me back on that trajectory,” he said. He had to be on good behavior for a year, and that meant avoiding fights and conflicts – a challenge behind bars. In 2019, he was accepted and embarked on essentially a coding bootcamp in a prison setting.

“Once you get to that classroom, you feel like you’re free. When you walk in that classroom, they treat you like you’re a real person,” Roy said. “They would understand what a struggle it was to get there.”

The students would spend all day coding and then return to the cell block to work on white-board problems at night.

“It kept me focused on good things. It kept me very hopeful that there would be some form of a future,” Roy said.

Today, Roy is an IT apprentice at Checkr Inc., a San Francisco-based software company that provides background checks to businesses.

He paid income taxes for the first time since his release this year – a far cry from his initial days of freedom relying on food stamps and health benefits through the state, or during his incarceration when taxpayers were footing the annual bill of $100,000-plus to house him.

He didn’t divulge his current salary at Checkr, but said that he typically puts in a 50-hour week.

Roy is a huge proponent of Fair Chance Employment, meaning that employers base their hiring decisions on a person’s qualifications instead of their criminal record.

He recounted thanking his boss at Checkr for the job, only to be met by “`You don’t have to thank me. You earned it. We’re glad you’re here.’” To Roy, the statement confirmed that the company didn’t make concessions in hiring him.

Checkr is dedicated to hiring employees who’d had trouble in the criminal-justice system after its founders became aware that adverse employment decisions were being made against them, and that it disproportionately impacted Black and brown people, said Ken Oliver, executive director of Checkr Foundation. Currently, 6% of its workers have had encounters with criminal justice.

“We’ve just built in our culture a mission to create a fair future,” Oliver said. “Behind every background check is a human story.”

It’s that premise that Interim Corrections Director Salisbury is banking on, but he acknowledges that it’s not just up to the Department of Corrections to ensure success. It’s a societal and state issue.

Not only do people need jobs to keep them engaged and allow them to provide for their families, but the state needs to furnish adequate housing and behavioral-health support.

“They need to be better set up for success when they get out,” Salisbury said.

The Last Mile started in Rhode Island on April 29, with the students asked to create their own blog, complete with an “about” page, introduction and five entries. They also received an assignment on HyperText Markup Language, or HTML,  and creating a webpage that contained a heading, paragraph, two separate lists and a link. The final project that week was to recreate the website sidebar with icons.

“It’s an education for the world … They’ve got to put the work in,” Acting Warden Kathy Lyons said. “In years past, you’d think of a wood shop. This is the future. They’ll be ahead of the curve. They earned it.”

Jayne DelSesto, interdepartmental project manager for the Department of Corrections, emphasized that the students don’t need to be coders to enroll. Their skills vary from folks who have never worked with a computer to the tech-savvy. “They’re learning a skill that will lead to a job,” DelSesto said.

The students at the ACI expressed gratitude at their acceptance to the program and its potential to transform their future.

“I’m hoping to complete TLM and have a better future for me and my wife and daughter and stay out of jail. This program is very hard, but I’m trying to do the work. Because this is my last chance to become a better person and be free from prison,” one participant wrote.

“Having been locked up since I was 19 years old, I was never able to find the path through my adult life that I wanted to walk down. This program has given me a path to take, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that,” another said.

Still another said: “This program has given me a way I can be a productive member of society. I can stop committing crimes to pay the rent. I can provide with a legal, meaningful career. I can be a productive member of society and not come back.”

For Roy, a major component of The Last Mile is building a community that will “change some people’s minds.” His supervisor at Checkr has told him the company wants to hire another apprentice, he said. He knows he must represent the program with dedication so doors will open for future graduates.

“I’m proud to see our program expanding. To me, the whole program is about access. We didn’t have access to these careers,” he said, adding “People want to change their lives.”

Roy is excited to see the program start in Rhode Island, and future growth to come as The Last Mile is embraced more widely by companies and states alike. “I know this is only the beginning,” he said.