By Juan Haines
Justin Meskan spent the last seven years behind bars, but in August he is scheduled to get another chance at putting his life back on track, with the assistance of an innovative computer programming class taught at San Quentin State Prison.
Speaking on the occasion of Code.7370’s graduation day, March 23, Meskan, 35, said, “I learned a lot about how to work with other people, and coders, on a team level. I also learned about responsibility, getting to work every day and how to put my life first and get away from my old habits.”
Dozens of business leaders, tech executives, venture capitalists and government workers wandered through the classroom inside the California Prison Industry Authority building, talking to the graduates and looking over their shoulders while the coders were working on their presentations.
“This is the kind of program that we should be doing at all 35 institutions,” said Ralph Diaz, undersecretary of operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “These are the opportunities that we are seeking for all 35 institutions.”
Meskan sat in front of his double-screen computer as a multi-player chess game’s pieces floated on its screen.
International business analyst Fernando Figueriredo praised Meskan’s coding skills.
“I was extremely surprised considering that he has limited available material,” said Figueriredo, who consults for the Brazilian government on its farming practices. “When he’s outside, he will increase his knowledge, because of access to information.” He added.
“When I heard about this program, I thought it was a great idea to put the prisoners on the right side. There is a huge need for coders in the Bay Area. It would be a way to help local companies and a great way to give prisoners a new beginning.”
Meskan said he spends a lot of his spare time reading everything he can find that relates to coding.
Code.7370 computers cannot be connected to the internet, a fact of life which creates a huge challenge in teaching programming techniques, according to supervising instructor Jon Gripshover.
Meskan also met with RocketSpace personnel who appeared interested in the fact that he was getting out of prison.
RocketSpace employs former San Quentin prisoners Kenyatta Leal and Vinh Nguyen.
Leal was praised for “keeping everything running smoothly,” one of the RocketSpace executives said.
“If you treat a man as he is, he will remain as he is,” Leal told the graduating class and audience. “But, if you treat a man as he can and should be, he will become as he can and should be.”
RocketSpace is an incubator workspace for startup companies. It also assists larger companies that are looking at smaller companies for ideas.
The chief of Workforce Development for California’s prison industries, Milo Fitch, said, “These programs give us the kind of outcome that we want as a society. Most prisoners are looking for a way out. People who take advantage of these programs find that they can fit in with mainstream culture.”
California has about 100 different businesses in its prisons that employ about 27,000 inmates.
“The heart of the business is the offender who never comes back to prison,” said Charles Pattillo, general manager of California Prison Industry Authority. “Our programs have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, which is about 7.3 percent.”
Pattillo pointed out that the graduating class saves California taxpayers about $520,000 per year.
He credited Code.7370 to Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti.
“It’s surreal seeing Kenyatta here, not in blue,” Redlitz said. “We first met in a broom closet in the chapel, and he was serving a life sentence. There were a lot of naysayers, but the cooperation between this public/private partnership should be a model for the country.” Referring to the graduates, he joked, “This is not fake news. These are real stories.”
Pattillo added, “When they get out of prison, we don’t want to ever see them again. No one wants to see them come back to prison. We want them to get out and make us proud.”
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs said he was impressed by the opportunity for the inmates to learn skills so that when they return to their communities they could fit in.
“It’s a challenge for me to provide opportunities for folks before they get to prison,” Tubbs said. “I’m not surprised by the coding skills of people in San Quentin.”
In addition, in attendance was entrepreneur Divine, who created BLAK card (Building Leverage Acquiring Knowledge).
Devine, an ex-offender and former drug dealer, said before meeting Redlitz and Parenti, he had only an eighth-grade education.
It was the third visit to San Quentin for vocalist Antoinette “Butterscotch” Clinton, a longtime fan of the Last Mile program, to support Redlitz and Parenti.
“I find myself getting emotional listening to the stories and through this program find a path that they are passionate about,” Clinton said. “It makes me happy to know that the cycle can be broken.”