Stanford students and prison inmates joined forces by participating in a ten week engineering course aimed at finding solutions to social problems.
The collaboration grew out of a chance encounter, about 10 years ago, between Stanford Professor Tina Seelig and venture capitalist Beverly Parenti. The two stayed in contact and floated around ideas.
Seelig came to San Quentin about four years ago to observe The Last Mile (TLM), an entrepreneurial program and a computer coding class, Code.7370 that Parenti co- founded.
During the visit, Seelig said inmate Heracio Harts’ presentation called Healthy Hearts encouraging people to make better dietary choice, impressed her.
“It changed my life,” Seelig said. “All the potential locked inside here.”
Over the years, the two worked on small projects, which finally turned into Unlocking Innovation Inside Prison, a curriculum taught as part of San Quentin’s computer coding class.
The class consisted of 16 Stanford students and 16 inmates. They divided into eight teams of four each.
The course launched Jan. 14.
On Tuesday and Thursday, the class met via Zoom (similar to Skype). Seelig invited several business experts as guest lecturers. On Thursdays, half the Stanford students went inside San Quentin to work directly with their inmate teammates.
“It was just as much an experience for the Stanford students as it was for the TLM students to show such an impact from all side,” said The Last Mile staffer Gaby Andrada.
On March 12, the class held a demonstration of their project ideas inside San Quentin.
Victoria Yoo, a marketing expert and a guest lecturer, was at the demonstration.
“I thought it would be life changing for someone in prison to have a class like this, but it was life-changing for me,” Yoo said. “In society we have categories and label- ing — in this classroom, we don’t have that un-empowering and labeling social con- struct. I am totally impressed with the outcome of the pro- gram.”
Standing in the classroom, she added, “In life people are in their own prisons — this room is only one form of awareness, depression and addiction are also prisons. Prisons should be thought of as a hospital where care can be taken to heal. We can’t just say, ‘lock ‘em up.’ To get to a better society, there should places for rehabilitation.”
Each of the teams presented their ideas in front of the class.
Inmates Ricardo “Ricky” Romero and Michael Holmes joined Stanford students Tammy and Ali to make up Team 7.
Romero, serving time for a first-degree murder, committed in 1996 when he was 23, talked about their idea, “Relive,” which is a virtual reality device that allows Alzheimer’s patients to re-experience their life.
Romero said that the collaboration was “eye opening.”
He said learning some- thing as difficult as coding is “a small part of the equation”. To succeed in the business world, “you also have to be a people person and you have to know how to ask for help.”
Romero came to San Quentin to be closer to his wife and because of the coding program, which he said is “very challenging without direct internet access.”
To assist in the training, teaching assistants roam the classroom; however, Romero said that the students rely on each other, which “helps develop team building skills.”
“Normally, I’d say the skills and employment opportunities make the program stand out, but I came to realize that coding is the number one skill that’s needed in the tech world today,” Romero said. “That gives me job security, knowing that there’s a six figure income — that beats working for Mc- Donald’s. Also, knowing that I design things that impact consumers — that’s the biggest takeaway.”
It was Stanford student Tammy’s first visit inside a prison. She took Unlocking Innovation Inside Prison wanting to learn about design thinking.
“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of business and social impact,” the Stanford undergrad in Management Science and Engineering said. Referring to the Team-7 experience, she added, “I’ve never been in an environment where everyone is so passionate about learning.”
Stanford student Ali moved from Istanbul, Turkey to the U.S. to further his education.
He said the classroom optimism surprised him.
“Everyone has hopes. It’s good to get that energy here,” he said at the demonstration. He added, “I’m surprised to see everyone is working on self improvement.”
In an interview, prior to the presentation, Seelig said, “It’s not about only starting companies, it’s about starting life. The hope is that people will walk feeling much more empowered in their lives. It’s a combination of looking back and looking forward.”
Regarding support from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Romero said, “They know what they’re doing. They are like an open book. We could always go to them for help. The instructors all have great personalities and are very encouraging.
“It’s one thing to learn cod- ing, but another to learn innovation — learning how to be your own boss,” Romero said. “I would have never thought that I’d be in front of this caliber of teaching.”
Romero’s first chance at parole will come in 2024.
Team-1: Stanford: McKinley McQuaide & Wyatt Martin San Quentin: Gabriel Ostolaza & Moua Vue Product: “The Life Change Network” helps at-risk youth find careers
Team-2: Stanford: Pallavi Sathya Babu & Claire Lior Rosenfeld San Quentin: Chai Saetern & Dale Cottrell Product: “What I Wish I Knew” storage sharing, user generated
Team-3: Stanford: Yael Yahya & Sarah Kimball Stebbins San Quentin: Nicola Bucci & Robert Barnes Product: “Through the Gate” eases life after prison
Team-4: Stanford: Garrett Jensen & Mya Havard San Quentin: Juan Haines and Keith Worten Product: “The Purpose Pillow” is an AI embedded pillow
Team-5: Stanford: Dillon Rose Schoen & Ryan Youra San Quentin: Vah Saechao & Gregory Morris Product: “Cheer Match” matches youth with cheerleaders
Team-6: Stanford: Fatima Hassan & Maria English San Quentin: Orlando Harris & Kennard Love Product: “The Mom App” encourages healthy eating, exercise, and limited social media
Team-7: Stanford: Tammy Hu Wu & Ali Edip Sarilgan San Quentin: Michael Holmes & Ricardo Romero Product: “Relive” VR headsets allow Alzheimer’s patients to relive experiences
Team-8: Stanford: Paola Martinez & Nikhil Varun Raghuraman San Quentin: Jamie Sanchez, Mark Radke & Troy Whitley Product: “VR Family” virtual reality headset that takes incarcerated individuals to friends and family
Editor’s note: Juan Haines enrolled in the class for reporting purposes