In 1997, when Zhuo “Simon” Liu was 16 years old, he was arrested for a variety of offenses, including “home invasion robbery”, “rape in concert with force or violence” and “assault with intent to commit a specified sex offense.” Confused by the legal system and speaking little English, Liu, who had immigrated to Oakland, Calif., about a year before from China with his family, pleaded no contest. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 26 years in prison in 1999.
Only, according to Liu and others, he wasn’t guilty of the sexual assault charges. Even so, after being released in 2017 for good behavior, he still is listed as a sex offender on California’s sex offender registry system. (He also was detained by ICE for nine months after his release and is living under a deportation order, according to Liu. He has asked Governor Gavin Newsom for a pardon).
Now, despite all odds, however, Liu is gainfully employed as a software engineer at a startup that does bookkeeping for businesses. That’s in part because, while in prison, he not only got his GED, but he also took a one-year-long class in computer programming offered by The Last Mile, a social enterprise that teaches incarcerated individuals how to code. “Prison teaches you to be resilient,” he says.
Coding Classes and Programming Gigs
Launched 10 years ago by venture capitalist Chris Redlitz and his wife and business partner Beverly Parenti, The Last Mile aims to address the high recidivism rate of formerly incarcerated people. To that end, it not only offers coding classes and programming gigs to individuals while they’re still in prison, but also teams up with tech companies to offer year-long apprenticeships after they’re released.
“They saw how badly the system is structured and the lack of support or educational opportunities, not only for people in prison, but also once they’re released,” says Marketing Manager Larissa Bundziak .
Working through state correctional departments, the coding program is now offered in 17 facilities across six states. Around 250 graduates have re-entered society and none have returned to prison, according to Bundziak.
The Last Mile
The Last Mile was also one of 35 teams to win at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s recent Virtual Solve Challenge Finals. Over $1 million in prize funding was awarded, with another $2 million to be disbursed later. TLM received $10,000.
Redlitz and Parenti got the idea for The Last Mile, which is a nonprofit, after Redlitz spoke to a group of inmates at San Quentin State Prison. He was so bowled over by the men’s business savvy, he and Parenti decided to launch an organization that would help incarcerated individuals learn how to be entrepreneurs.
Incarcerated individuals can’t have access to the Internet. So the curriculum uses a learning management system that meets correctional facility security requirements and also delivers a Web-like experience. Up to 25 students, who have to apply to be accepted into the program and must not have had an infraction for the last two years, sit at computers and the classes are taught remotely.
In 2016, came TLM Works, an in-prison workforce development program aimed at helping students develop a portfolio of real-life coding projects before release. To that end, they created a web development shop inside San Quentin, where participants could work on client-funded projects.
Also, through a program called Next Chapter, launched in 2018, TLM is working with such tech companies as Slack and Zoom to offer year-long apprenticeship programs to train and mentor graduates that, ultimately could serve as a blueprint for other businesses. Initial funding came from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, with additional support from the Tides Center, the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative and Concrete Rose, among other organizations.
As for Liu, as a teenager, he not only struggled in school, but also at home, where his father was abusive. He was arrested after two older men took him and several other poor immigrant 15-to-17 year olds under their wing, only to persuade six of them, including Liu, to take part in a home invasion robbery. Unbeknownst to Liu, while he stood guard downstairs, one of his comrades sexually assaulted a pregnant woman upstairs.
After serving 21 years of a 26-year-sentence, Liu was immediately arrested upon release by ICE agents, he says. After he was let out nine months later, he attended a three-month coding boot camp and worked part-time as a software engineer for TLM. Last year he was hired by Pilot, a four-year-old, 140-employee startup that does bookkeeping for businesses and has a policy of recruiting individuals with records, among other overlooked populations.
“A core value at Pilot is that we have an opportunity to use our platform to increase the amount of equity in the world, to be thoughtful about making sure that talented people who may have been overlooked in the market have a chance,” says founder and CTO Jessica McKellar.