SAN QUENTIN — North of Silicon Valley on a rocky promontory overlooking San Francisco Bay stands California's oldest prison.
Inmates here are cut off from the innovation the nearby high-tech industry produces. They are not permitted on the Internet, and most have never touched a smartphone or a tablet.
But two technology veterans — Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti — are bringing the promise of Silicon Valley to San Quentin State Prison by creating a high-tech incubator here called the Last Mile. Its mission is to teach inmates about technology so they can forge new lives when they are released from prison.
Over the course of six months, inmates are put through a business boot camp. They brainstorm a start-up, develop a business plan and boil down their pitch to five minutes. On "Demo Day," each inmate presents his idea to dozens of Silicon Valley investors and executives who crowd the prison chapel.
The inmates can't actually start these companies from prison, but they are introduced to a world that would otherwise be closed to them. When paroled, Last Mile graduates are given paid internships at tech start-ups.
Five graduates of the San Quentin program are working in high tech. The program has been so successful that last month it expanded to the downtown Los Angeles Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where 15 inmates are taking part.
Tom Serres, founder and chief executive of Rally.org, a crowd-funding start-up for political, social and charitable causes in San Francisco, said he had doubts about hiring a felon. But those quickly vanished after meeting Heracio "Ray" Harts, he said. Harts, 40, was released in April after he served 81/2 years for manslaughter.
"This is a real opportunity to help somebody who most definitely deserves the opportunity to be a contributing member of society," Serres said.
Last February, Harts stood at the prison chapel lectern — dressed in a prison-issued blue shirt and dark sweat pants with the word "prisoner" stamped on the leg and his hair in braids — pitching his idea to combat obesity in low-income communities by turning empty lots into community gardens and abandoned buildings into fitness facilities. A mobile app would help people track their fitness progress.
Today Harts has earned a spot at Rally.org as a full-time employee. Harts helps the Robert Redford Foundation, the Maker Education Initiative and the Delta Sigma Phi national fraternity with their campaigns on the website. And he's talking to Pittsburg, Calif., officials about starting a health and fitness program in his former hometown.
"I feel like I belong here," said Harts, sitting in a brick-and-glass walled conference room at Rally.org, in a North Face fleece jacket, his hair neatly buzzed. "I'm an entrepreneur. I work in tech. This is my evolution."
Like many who live in wealthy Marin County, husband and wife Redlitz and Parenti often drove past San Quentin but had never set foot inside.
Then in 2011, a friend asked Redlitz, a 57-year-old entrepreneur and investor who runs the KickLabs accelerator program in San Francisco, to give a 30-minute talk on entrepreneurship at San Quentin. He was apprehensive but decided to go.
For two hours Redlitz fielded questions from inmates who he says impressed him with their passion, drive and smarts.
"These were people who have taken responsibility for what they have done and are trying to carve a path back to society," Redlitz said.
California has one of the largest prison populations in the United States, second only to Texas, and one of the highest rates of recidivism. Within three years nearly 2 out of 3 ex-convicts commit another crime and end up back in prison. Yet the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spends just 4.3% of its nearly $9-billion budget on rehabilitation.
"Those numbers really hit me," Redlitz said. "Putting my professional investor hat on, that's a really bad investment for taxpayers."
So Redlitz and Parenti persuaded prison officials to let them experiment with a new model for rehabilitation that combines job training, confidence building and a bridge to the technology industry.
With California facing a deadline to ease overcrowding by reducing its prison population, more prisoners are serving longer sentences in county jails. "The goal is to offer the Last Mile in all of the L.A. County Jail facilities," Redlitz said.