‘The Last Mile’ Transforms San Quentin Inmates Into Tech Entrepreneurs

SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) — It’s Demo Day.

Chung Kao is serving a life sentence for 2nd degree murder. He’s been behind bars for 23 years now. His pitch? A voice-coded trigger lock that can be traced by police if a gun is stolen. “There’s nothing like it on the market.”

That’s true, and Kao’s idea is already in the works for a patent. He’s part of this year’s graduating class of The Last Mile, a rehabilitative program for inmates in San Quentin.

“I feel the energy inside when I was pitching,” said Pao.

The Last Mile is the brainchild of Silicon Valley venture capitalists Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti. They launched it back in 2010, creating the first-ever business incubator to operate behind bars.

Prisoners spend six months learning how to code, use social media, do business planning and finally, pitch their ideas on Demo Day to fellow prisoners and outside investors.

On this Demo Day, the room is packed as 8 inmates pitch their ideas.

Big AZ, aka Azraal Ford pitches an app to support victims of bullying.

“I was in their shoes once, and I don’t want them to repeat my mistakes,” he said.

Another inmate pitches an app that helps find missing children; another, pitches GPA, an app that helps parents track their kid’s grades.

And so it goes. Unlike the movie that bore the same name about a group of hopeless death row inmates (starring Mickey Rooney), The Last Mile is all about hope and optimism, and that’s a hard sell in a place like San Quentin.

“I feel that I have something to offer, and hopefully I proved that, and hopefully one day this business will take off,” said Big AZ.

James Cavitt feels no one ever really believed in him before he got to prison. That’s all changed.

“It’s hard not to believe in yourself, when you have so many people championing – wanting us to succeed.”

The roster of mentors on the outside include Silicon Valley heavyweights like John Silber at Google, Rockspace founder Duncon Logan. Today, MC Hammer is in the house. He’s one of the biggest hip-hop stars in Tech.

“It prepares us to be self-supporting, it prepares us to make a major contribution to the communities we go back to, it also helps us prepare to support our families,” said Larry “Doc” Histon. “Most of the guys who have done this program have jobs in the tech sector, and I hope to do that when I get out.”

Last Mile graduate and former inmate Darnell Hill spent 24 years in San Quentin. As a kid growing up in Oakland, he dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. He’s living proof the program works. He’s been on the outside for almost a year, getting his life back on track.

“It’s hard to get a job period — You can Have a PhD and it’s hard, imagine getting out of prison and want to look for a job in the tech field,” said Hill. Thanks to The Last Mile, “I have three jobs that I’m working.”

There are others like him. Check out their stories on The Last Mile’s website.

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