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Prison Coding Class Gives Inmates Skills And Hope

SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) Imagine teaching someone to write computer code when they don't own a computer.. and even if they did, they can't get online. This week's Jefferson Award winner isn't letting those challenges stop her, if it means prison inmates get the training they need to get good jobs once they're released.

Beverly Parenti and her husband Chris Redlitz drive by San Quentin State Prison in Marin County often.

"On the ferry you pass San Quentin, you drive by San Quentin, but you never really know what's going on inside the prison walls," Parenti said thoughtfully.

Five years ago, Redlitz was asked to speak to inmates there about how to start a business after they get out. He asked Parenti to join him, and what she hears from an inmate changed everything.

"He said, 'I can no longer let 12 minutes of one day of my life define who I am as a person,'" she remembered.

That inspired the couple to create "The Last Mile." Because they had spent years in high tech, it made sense that their non-profit would teach inmates the science of computer coding. Parenti had seen the research: 75% of people released from prison are unemployed within the first year, and 60% get out, commit another crime, and go straight back to prison.

"Our mission is to provide marketable skills that will result in gainful employment," Parenti explained. "Because we believe that having a job is truly the key to successful reentry."

One of the first graduates of the program is Kenyatta Leal, now the manager of campus services at RocketSpace, a technology campus in San Francisco.

"What the last mile did was introduce us to the idea of how technology has changed the way businesses operate and the way businesses compete," Leal said. "The way consumers get products and how they deal with businesses."

With 12 graduates out of prison and successfully employed, The Last Mile chose to focus on computer coding, because that's where the jobs are.

"Computer coding is one business area where you would be judged by the quality of your work not by the stigma of your past," Parenti said.

One problem: there are no computers or internet connections for inmates.

"So we had to create this simulated program that would feel like an internet environment but not be," Parenti explained.

The Last Mile recently received funding to expand the program to six more prisons. Two will be women's facilities.

And besides learning to code, inmates get something more from The Last Mile:

Parent put it this way: "I would say the number one thing they receive is hope for the future."

So, for giving inmates the tools for a job and a better life after prison, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Beverly Parenti.

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