“At what age did you lose your innocence, whatever that means to you?” Catherine Hoke asked a room half full of wealthy volunteer venture capitalists and entrepreneurs staring at a room half full of inmates at one of California’s most dangerous prisons. I want you to pause here and really think about that — Lancaster State Prison is a level 4 maximum security prison north of LA, a yard so dangerous that 99% of inmates are strapped with a shank at all times. Many of the inmates, or EITs (Entrepreneurs-in-Training as Defy calls them), are here for life, no chance of parole; some of them convicted as young as 16.
We were in the midst of an exercise called “Step to the Line” in which the volunteers lined up practically nose to nose with the EITs, toes on a line of festive duct tape, gazing into the back of each other’s pupils. “Before the age of 18?” asks Catherine. About half of the volunteers step away from the line signifying this doesn’t apply to them. “Younger than 16?” More volunteers step back, the first batch of the EITs step back. “12?” All but a dozen of the 70 volunteers retreated from the line while a little less than half of the EITs remain. “10?” The line thins. “8? 6 years old?” Now just a combined handful stay. Several EITs rushed to the line and reach across to the now sobbing volunteers fixed on the line. They offer support, hand shakes, soft noble eyes of compassion. They offered their brethren that are still at the line warm, comforting embraces. Everyone was crying now. Some of us because we knew we should be at that line still but fell short on courage, and some of us because we wish that they didn’t have to be standing there, and for fewer still both were true. Rolling into prison for the first time 24 hours prior, I was most worried about missing a procedural step and getting kicked out or tackled and detained. Now I stood in front of 56 EITs scared of what I might discover about myself.
For Defy, this is business as usual. Catherine, her husband Charles and an amazing support staff sets up programs in prisons all over the country to help the forgotten imprisoned population of America regain their self image and truly reform. For the entrepreneurs reading this today, who is better to face the challenges of starting a business than men and women that have gone through unthinkable struggles? The prison system was designed to be used as a reform tool and Defy is taking that back. Their EITs in the program learn skills that prepare them for “the outs.” Each of them was to give a business pitch to a panel of volunteers in a Shark Tank style event in which 5 finalists would receive a check for their accomplishments. Entrepreneurship is possibly the path of least resistance for an ex-convict that’s been demonized by society after paying their debt.
Mark Suster with an EIT
I thought about the worst things I’ve done in my life, and I imagined if I was known for that one thing, like if I were named in the middle ages. Tom the Arsonist they’d call me. How might that affect my opportunities and my path? Suddenly, I found myself scanning the eyes of the room around me. I’ve traveled alone in impoverished countries when the only way for me to know if I was safe was to look into someone’s eyes. What I saw was regret, shame, compassion, suffering, yearning for redemption.
Now it was the end of the day. A day full of business pitches, hugs, tears, eye gazing and carnations. Not really what I would have imagined at one of California’s most dangerous prisons. The EITs were dressed in their cap and gowns for graduation from the program. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever worn one. Marlund stood on stage, picked to represent his class to address the audience. He held strong, yet modestly and quietly. His voice was barely audible with the mic pressed against his lips. He talked about gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the program and expressed deep thanks to Defy for the skills he’d learned. He then read a poem that he wrote titled “Love.”
Rather than tell you the words of his poem, I’d rather tell you to imagine what it must sound like coming from a 22 year old man who became a legal adult in prison, five years of his double life term under his belt, only 50 more years before he’s eligible for parole. A robbery gone wrong ending in a conviction for 2 counts of attempted murder, escape, burglary, and causing severe harm with a firearm all at the age of 17, and no one will get to hear his plea for forgiveness until he’s in his mid 70s, almost 10 years past his life expectancy. One of the EITs pitched me a photo project that day: a photo of a man in the moment his first born comes into the world, and a photo of that same man when he’s sentenced to life in prison. He said you can watch his soul leave his body.
There has been a time when we each have looked up to the heavens, the clouds, the universe, the gooey stuff that holds all this together and asked for one more chance. I challenge each of us to give ourselves one more chance, and to give others that same chance we beg for. Think back to a time when maybe you could have been incarcerated. Think back to when you lost your innocence, whatever that means to you.
...and please if you live in California, vote YES on prop 57!
Some of the faces of Lancaster