Steve Sims invited me to join him in prison.
This was a first for me, but I considered it. Might be good for the brand, could be interesting, and well, Steve invited me, so I was in.
What I didn’t expect is what a profound impact that it would have on me.
It happened gradually. Kern Valley State Prison is a Level IV maximum security prison in Delano, CA. Thirty two volunteers arrived in a chartered bus and as we exited the freeway, anything commercial, or green… disappears. You see the fencing, TALL fencing and razor wire and then the guard towers. The architecture is efficient and clearly designed for massive (containment?) and security. Everything is beige.
The volunteers are joking and laughing nervously, and then we slowly began to enter into THEIR world. It’s incredibly different. The only thing we were allowed to bring inside was a government-issued photo ID. As we are slowly processed, I am reminded of what international customs feels like at LAX, only more foreboding. There’s a heaviness in the air that’s palpable. We are advised by a supervising correctional officer that “We don’t fire warning shots.” Anywhere else this would be considered funny. He’s not joking.
As we pass through the first checkpoint, we step into an area I realize is designed to manage our entry into the prison grounds; an electric chain-link sliding gate opens, (think Jurassic Park), and about 6-10 of us at a time step into an area that’s about 20’ x 20’ with another sliding chain-link gate that’s closed with a correctional officer. We are now essentially inside a cage in which only one side opens at a time. A large sign carries an international symbol for “Danger – Electrified Fence.” Stuff Just Got Real.
We make our way past what I later realize are living quarters. Stark, two-story building with windows that I estimate to be 6” wide and maybe 3’ tall. Foreboding. We finally arrive at “The Yard,” an open area that can be used for sports or supervised movement for prisoners in an open-air setting. Just like every movie we’ve ever seen. Guard towers and guards with rifles patrol the areas above.
As we approach the gym, we hear what we have been prepared for; the EIT’s “Entrepreneurs In Training” are loudly welcoming us as we move in single file line and they have a created a very loud tunnel of high fives through which we enter. All clad in loose fitting blue clothing and sneakers – we are greeted by some of the largest, most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen.
This is where “fight or flight” instincts begin to short circuit; We are suddenly thrust into close proximity with felons who have committed some very, very serious crimes. On the other hand what we’re seeing are warm, inviting men who are thanking us for coming. #emotionalshortcircuit.
Here’s the thing; Defy Ventures has created a 6-month program called “CEO of Your New Life” and these men are preparing for re-entry. They are learning how to interview, become gainfully employed and then how to build a business of their own. We are asked to begin replacing terms like “Prison” with “Correctional Facility” and “Inmates” with “EIT’s.”
And so it begins.
Rows of chairs are arranged for all of us to face the facilitator who has the volunteers arrange themselves in groups of 5 at the back of the room and prepare to individually dance (yep, dance) to the front of the room to the sound of loud upbeat music, everyone standing, smiling and clapping while we comply and introduce ourselves. Man, this is waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone, but if you’re going be in – be ALL IN!
We’re then introduced to an exercise referred to as “Step to the Line.” There are two parallel lines painted on the gymnasium floor approximately 3 feet apart. The EIT’s are lined up on one side and the volunteers on the other. We’re asked to make eye contact and hold it for three seconds with the person across from us. Weird for them. Weird for us. What results is the beginning of the humanization process that must occur as we move closer toward better understanding each other.
The facilitator begins reading statements; if it applies, you step to the line. If not, you take three steps back. It begins innocuously; “Do you like country music?” (light laughter as everyone looks up and down the line to assess.) Then the statements become more significant; “I heard gunshots in my neighborhood growing up,” “There was violence in my home when I was a child,” “When I was 18 I didn’t think I would live to be 21.”
All of the EIT’s were standing at the line for these heavy statements and nearly all of the volunteers were 3 steps back. Wow. How powerful. My childhood reality was so incredibly different from these men.
Then the statements start transitioning into the things that we would have in common and then a funny thing started to happen; spontaneously, there where handshakes and hugs developing across the line as both groups began to see what we had in common. Powerful.
As we transition into the coaching time, we are given 13 minutes to sit across from two EIT’s and coach one while the other listens. We review their resume, listen to their “personal statement,” (a powerful structure designed to acknowledge the serious mistakes they made in their past before explaining how hard they’re willing to work to a prospective employer and then finally to listen to their business idea(s). Some REALLY great business ideas. Their business proposal must not have anything to do with alcohol, sex or drugs, require less than $20,000 in startup costs, be cash flow positive in 6 months or less and ideally provide an opportunity to eventually employ other EIT’s.
As I sat and talked to these men (2 transgenders as well), what hit me was *their eyes.* Heads, necks and faces covered with tattoos became secondary, while eye contact became our connection. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is quoted as saying, ‘Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi’ (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter). I still see them now. Eyes hungry for clarity, approval… hope.
We all need hope, and this is theirs. There are 3700 inmates in Kern Valley State Prison. We met with 60 of them. Sixty men that have committed to a 6-month course designed to help them have a second chance.
I wish I had a more appropriate word than “honored” to describe how it felt to participate in this process, but that’s the one I’ll go with.
I am a different man as a result. More tolerant, more understanding and with huge buckets of perspective and appreciation for every bit of my life that I take for granted. Not the least of which is my freedom… and the power of redemption.
Defy Ventures, founded in 2010, has a simple but unique mission: “To end mass incarceration and to drastically reduce the rate convicted convicts re-offend after being let out” by instilling an understanding of entrepreneurship as a tool to “transform legacies and human potential.” Defy accomplishes this by providing a business education to prison inmates–referred to as Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs)–and then pairing them with business professionals, who spend a day at prison and provide insights and feedback on the EITs’ business proposals. Defy’s mission is at the intersection of social entrepreneurship, community transformation and investment, with a significant amount of self awareness facilitation, and its success and impact go well beyond the P&L sheet on which traditional venture firms focus.
California’s recidivism rate is 50%. Defy’s graduates recidivism rate is less than 5%.