Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg, along with a team from Facebook, on Oct. 13 signed their names into the guest book at the guard station at one of the most notorious prisons on the planet, a maximum security penitentiary that housed death-row inmates including ruthless murderers such as Charles Manson and Scott Peterson.
That day, they were in San Quentin State Prison making a special guest appearance at a class called Code.7370, a program that teaches inmates computer coding skills four days a week, eight hours a day for six months.
Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. The greatest success stories were created by people who recognized a problem and turned it into an opportunity. -- Joseph Sugarman
Not so long ago, I was reading, writing, diligently dreaming and designing my new life while waiting to be released after serving two years in the Nevada state penitentiary. Using my prison experience as the hook, two years ago I sent a tweet to a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist. To my surprise and delight, he responded. That single tweet became the inception of a close and rewarding friendship.
Fast forward to earlier this week: I’ve been coding day and night, designing a new website for the organization that was about to be recognized by Mark-frickin-Zuckerberg in a personal Facebook post.
Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti co-founded The Last Mile, a non-profit focused on prison reform by teaching inmates how to code and become entrepreneurs so they have marketable skills when released. As a result of my tweet, I became deeply involved with the program, and have become great friends with the founders. That tweet also enabled me the opportunity to build a new website for The Last Mile, that subsequently was in the media spotlight as a result of the Zuckerberg visit. Check out the new site at The Last Mile.
Here’s The Last Mile story as noted on the new website:
“Five years ago, Chris Redlitz entered San Quentin State Prison for the first time. Because of his background in venture capital, he was invited to speak to a group of men about business and entrepreneurship. He was so impressed by the men’s level of business knowledge and desire to learn, he began to nurture the idea of creating a technology accelerator inside the prison."
"Beverly agreed to join Chris on a journey to create The Last Mile (TLM). Since its inception The Last Mile has generated a groundswell of support for criminal justice across America. Never before have we experienced such a cooperative, non-partisan effort to curb the problem of mass incarceration. Imagine if we could break the cycle of incarceration and instead of spending tax dollars for prison, we could spend these tax dollars on higher education, and provide educational opportunities for youth in underserved communities. This would enable them to choose a different path than one of crime. With education and career training opportunities we could break the generational cycle of incarceration. There’s plenty of proof that the impact of one man’s incarceration is felt by families and communities for decades.”
For Chris and Bev, state prison was the last place they’d expect to find such wild opportunity.
The men in the Code.7370 program are hand selected. Some have been in prison for as long as 19 years and have never even touched a computer. Furthermore, these men are the pioneers of the program, clearing the way for others and opening doors of opportunity.
"Everybody in that class knows who Mark Zuckerberg is even though they've never been on Facebook," Redlitz says. "He's idolized."
Having the men present their work themselves to the CEO of Facebook was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I guarantee it was probably not an opportunity they’d expect while sitting in a prison cell all day.
Zuckerberg sees opportunity in prison reform, "making our criminal justice system fairer and more effective is a huge challenge for our country," he wrote on a Facebook post. "I'm going to keep learning about this topic, but some things are already clear. We can't jail our way to a just society, and our current system isn't working. We actually don't ask about your criminal record on your job application here at Facebook. That way we don't bias against people who've made a mistake in their past, and we can help give them a second chance.”
What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude towards it. Every difficulty has an opportunity, and every opportunity has a difficulty. -- J. Sidlow Baxter
Opportunity is everywhere. Sometimes, it just takes a new perspective, a tweaked attitude or a little action like sending a tweet to someone you truly admire.