Second Chance Blooms Behind Bars

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 8, 2016

Lancaster, California, July 23, 2016: 109 degrees.

Location: California State Prison – CDCR (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation)

No, I was not headed to prison as a potential inmate (I know there may be a few folks in town who are disappointed to hear that). I was there as part of Defy Ventures, a program designed for inmates to “become the CEO of their new life.” And without any equivocation, I can tell you, this day was transformative, as much for the inmates as for the volunteers.

Meet the life force behind this project – Catherine Hoke. This lady is electric and what she has achieved with the Defy program in five years is amazing. She describes Defy as blended learning. The program includes 150 course hours online and over 3,000 volunteers who range from the Valley elite to Harvard MBA professors to regular chuckleheads like yours truly. Google has given a $500,000 grant, and 100 startups have been founded and funded since the inception of the program.

Hoke describes the program as “Kahn Academy meets Y Combinator – but for people with criminal histories.” Like many entrepreneurs, she had a strong father, a Hungarian inventor, who challenged the children “to invent something in 60 seconds” at the dinner table. She says, “I have always been a contrarian.” She was the oldest of four children, competed on the boy’s wrestling team, played women’s rugby and then went to UC Berkeley. Hoke was the youngest undergraduate ever hired by a venture firm in the Valley (they wanted her to be a deal originator), she worked in venture and then in private equity in New York. And then she took a trip to Texas.

That trip was fateful. She saw the Texas prison system and decided she could make it better. You have heard many times about the entrepreneur who wants to change the world – but mostly what they really mean is they want to build an app and flip it and make some serious coin – not Hoke. She actually wanted to change the world.

Now when you want to change the world – and the world you want to change is filled with tough guys who have committed serious crimes -you need some street cred. Hoke has the stripes and scars that earn her their respect. You can read her story, but bottom line, she made some mistakes, she admitted them, and then in the good-old-boy world she lived in, they fired her. And that became the impetus to go back and make it better. (Or as I like to say, beat their brains in).

I have lots of rules in my book, but one of them is right on the money with this woman. “The reason that entrepreneurs do this, is not for fame or fortune, it is for revenge.” She was going to take a serious whack at the prison system and how it can better prepare its population for a life when they get out.

Defy has been in business for five years, it has graduated 175 EITs (entrepreneurs in training) who went from being “in training” to real life, with a less than 4 percent recidivism rate. Wow. And I can tell you if Hoke ever comes back in another life, she should audition for Marine drill sergeant. She is fierce.

I wanted to experience this event up close and personal, so I dragooned my pal, Mark Bowles, to come with me and spend the day at the California State Prison.

Let me tell you about the day.

First, it is a real prison – Level IV. Maximum security. I asked Hoke about it in an earlier conversation. She kidded me by calling it “Attica West.” I am not so sure she was kidding.

Razor wire, slamming steel doors, massive security – just like television – except I couldn’t change the channel. Built to hold 2,500 inmates, its current population is 3,500, or two prisoners per cell. There is the mandatory de-briefing of course. The prison warden, Debbie Asuncion, does the usual welcome, and then there is one line that significantly gets my attention. She notes that “if any of you are taken hostage, we will not negotiate for your release.” You can’t make this stuff up. There are five very large guys in front of us who she assures us “will make sure we are safe.” My time lecturing at the Miramar Brig is going to seem like a walk in the park compared to this.

Thirty volunteers had signed up for the day; 17 showed up. Hoke does not like people who don’t do what they say they are going to do. Most entrepreneurs feel the exact same way.

We walk across the prison yard – and then it is unbelievable. The door to the facility opens and in front of us is a gauntlet of 55 prisoners – cheering. Our job is to run down the line and high-five everyone . The inmates cover us with stickers, just like you see on football helmets. There is more cheering and music. If you walked in a bit uptight, by the time you get down the gauntlet, all pretense is gone. You are a homey and in the trenches now.

These EIT’s have been working on “their new life” for three months, and this was the halfway point in their program – meeting the volunteers. In another three months, they will participate in a mini-shark tank with their ideas for the chance to win a portion of $100,000 dollars in funding.

Next, there was some rap music, there was dancing, there was vulnerability, there were tears. There was one exercise that nearly broke my heart. Hoke lines the inmates up on one side of a line, the volunteers on another. Then we all step back and she calls out questions and if it applies to you, step up and toe the line.

“Finished high school”- only one-fourth of the inmates step up. All the volunteers do of course. “Finished college” – one inmate out of 55 stands on that line. If you don’t think education and crime are related, stop reading.

When asked about who was in for murder, about 80 percent stepped to the line, same for life sentence (but with possibility of parole). Abused, single parent, drugs, early “loss of innocence” – and so it goes. It is heartbreaking to see that nearly all of them are on the line now. You really begin to get a sense of who these people are – and you get a bone-numbing, gut-wrenching awareness of what it means to be white and privileged.

The day is packed with interactions and reveals. You hear loss and pain and regret, but you also hear hope and the possibility of a future life. And what I heard deeply and consistently were personal statements about regret, sincere apologies and a fierce commitment to have a new life and never to do that stupid thing again.

I believe in second chances.

The inmates had workbooks and written materials, they had resumes and they had prepared and memorized “personal statements.” The goal of that statement – that beginning when you tell someone who you really are – is not to get the job; it is to get the interview. Break the puzzle down into pieces.

At the end of the day, Hoke asks for money, naturally. What I had told her previously was that Bowles and I would give money, but only for a program in San Diego to support one of our local prisons.

So now comes the shameless challenge. I asked Hoke how much it takes to do the program at one of our prisons (Donovan is a good choice), and she said, I needed a two-year commitment, and the total cost is $100,000 ($50,000 per year). That is enough to serve 100 inmates per year, so a total impact for 200 inmates. I told her I would see if WE (that means you) could get that done.

There is an enormous amount of talk about mentoring and incubation and innovation in our community, and I want to channel some of it, right here and right now, to the less advantaged. These inmates are not computer science graduates from UCSD, their goal is a barbershop or a food truck – but I assure you, if you ever get your hair cut or eat a taco from a Defy Venture Graduate, your life will never be the same.

If you have an inclination to donate, send me an email for details. I am opening an escrow for Defy/San Diego – be the first on your block – (not cell block).

Rule No. 475

Think about it.


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