To build relationships with influential people, we need to create strategies that show we’re worthy of their time and energy.
Whether we’re in prison or we’re in society, we must follow the rules. While in the halfway house, regulations required that I show full-time employment and earn a steady paycheck. Since I coordinated all that before I transitioned to the halfway house, my case manager authorized me to get out regularly.
Thanks to my preparations before leaving prison, Lee sponsored me as a friend. He set a schedule for me to work 10—hour shifts, Monday through Saturday. I reported to an office and sat at a desk. Instead of working on tasks for Lee’s company, I spent time sowing the seeds to build my business.
Building a business requires us to clarify our vision. We’ve got to help others understand the problem we’re striving to solve and convince people that we’re qualified and capable of creating a solution.
When I spoke with Lee about wanting to devote my career to improving the outcomes of America’s prison system, he didn’t see the vision. He understandably thought that, after 25 years inside, I should try to put the prison years behind me.
In my view, mass incarceration represented one of our time’s most significant social injustices. While serving a sentence, I saw the irony of statistics: The longer we expose a person to corrections, the less likely people become to function in society. More than anything else, administrators prioritized the security of the institution. Without access to resources that community members take for granted, people serving sentences had difficulty preparing for success. I aspired to create resources that would help people emerge from prison successfully.
Lee encouraged me to develop a plan that would lead to sustainable revenues. If I didn’t build personal stability, he pointed out, I would fail in creating solutions that anyone else could use.
During the first several weeks, I had to familiarize myself with technology. The world had changed during the decades I served. When I went to prison, leaders like Bill Gates projected how technology would change our lives. He built Microsoft to put computers in every home and on every desk. His vision had become a reality long before my release date. We didn’t only have computers in every home and on every desk but also in everyone’s pockets.
I’d read that people found Apple products more intuitive and easier to learn. With my first weekend pass, Carole and I visited the Apple store in Union Square. I purchased a MacBook Pro laptop and a 27” iMac desktop computer. During those first weeks on the job, I learned the basics of how to use these tools, hoping they would improve my efficiency and help me reach a wider audience.
Books and articles have given me a basic understanding of the internet, search engines, social media, and software applications. Yet once I started working with computers, I realized that I would need to invest hundreds of hours to become proficient. Fortunately, I had Carole to tutor me. When she wasn’t on the job nursing at the hospital, she sat beside me at my desk, making herself available to respond to my questions while she worked through her studies. I liked her being close by, always willing to assist when I had questions.
When Carole first came into my life, we registered the domain name I would use for my website. She retained a web developer to build a site that would help me memorialize the progress I made through the final decade of my imprisonment. I wrote thousands of articles that Carole published on the site. The website became a central location that would demonstrate my authenticity. Once I got out, I had to learn more about WordPress, the platform for my website.
I wrote a daily journal entry for decades and sent my journals home. Carole published each entry as my “daily log” on the website. I wanted people to see the path, that through hard work, an individual could triumph over prison. I made some critical errors in the beginning. Unfortunately, I lost many records with my decision to switch from one web-hosting company to another. We pay the price for inexperience. Several years passed before I became fluent in WordPress and social media.
Although my time inside didn’t open opportunities for hands-on experience with technology or computer networks, I developed other skills. Building support networks, for example, helped me a great deal. I always believed that more opportunities would open upon release if I spent time building robust support networks. That strategy influenced my Socratic questioning, with questions such as:
- What steps could I take today to influence people to believe in me tomorrow?
Those types of questions influenced my adjustment. Accomplishments inside could persuade other people to believe in me. I could leverage those relationships to open new relationships. For example, I wrote earlier about my friendship with Justin. After graduating from USC, Justin built a career as a stockbroker. He made some bad decisions that resulted in his conviction for securities fraud, though Justin’s crime didn’t characterize his entire life. He’d been successful in society once, and as we built our friendship, I sensed that he would be successful again.
When Justin concluded his obligation to the BOP, he launched a nonprofit that we could use to raise funding. With those funds, we could publish books and courses. Justin then attended schools, workshops, and conferences that exposed him to problems people in underserved communities faced.
Through our work, Justin met others who aspired to make an impact on improving outcomes for people in America’s criminal justice system. For example, he connected with Scott Budnick, famous for his role as a Hollywood producer of many blockbuster films, including The Hangover series, Starsky and Hutch, and other big-budget films. Besides making films, Scott had a genuine interest in juvenile justice. He founded The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit striving to reduce recidivism.
Soon after I got to the halfway house, Scott invited me to visit him in Hollywood. Rules precluded me from being able to travel until I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons. My case manager authorized me to leave the halfway house for work six days each week, but he couldn’t allow me to travel outside my jurisdiction to Southern California.
Travel limitations and halfway house restrictions presented problems, but human support networks offered solutions. Since I lived in San Francisco, Scott introduced me to Chris Redlitz, a venture capitalist interested in criminal justice reform. Thanks to Scott’s introduction, Chris invited me to meet him in Marin.
Chris’s firm Transmedia Capital matched investors with technology entrepreneurs who wanted to build compelling businesses that changed the world. Besides offering to fund entrepreneurs, Chris also ran a series of business incubators, providing resources for technology startups.
When not putting multi-million-dollar investments together, he and his wife volunteered at the San Quentin state prison. Initially, he visited the prison to speak about entrepreneurism. The people he met inside inspired him. Chris then went home and convinced his wife and business partner, Beverly Parenti, to join him. Together they launched The Last Mile, an organization that would invest time, energy, and resources to create pathways for people in prison to prepare for success. They created a comprehensive curriculum to teach business principles to people serving sentences at San Quentin. Later, Chris and Beverly grew The Last Mile into one of the most transformational programs in prison—creating programs that would teach people how to code computers.
As I look back, I always see the connections, and I’m grateful:
- By reading about people like Socrates, Mandela, and Viktor Frankl, I developed hope that a person could lead a life of meaning and relevance after prison.
- Opportunities to learn existed in every prison.
- With commitment, a person could learn to read, write, and communicate better.
- Communicating better could lead to supportive relationships.
- Through supportive relationships, opportunities would open.
- That strategy led to a business relationship with Justin, which led to a connection to Scott Budnick and an introduction to Chris Redlitz.
Through Chris Redlitz, I met Tulio Cardozo. Tulio was one of the first graduates of The Last Mile. As I had done, Tulio made some bad decisions as a young man, becoming involved with drugs. While incarcerated, however, Tulio chose to reinvent himself. Through textbooks, he trained himself how to code computers while he served his sentence at San Quentin. Those efforts brought Tulio to the attention of Chris Redlitz, and Chris authorized Tulio to participate in The Last Mile training program. When Tulio concluded his prison sentence at San Quentin, Chris offered Tulio an internship. In that role, he learned more about working with technology companies.
As it turns out, Tulio also followed the pattern of masterminds. He lived deliberately, and his actions led to success.
Although I didn’t know much about technology, Tulio had a wealth of information. He invested hundreds of hours helping me to understand the internet and how to use technology. Whenever I had a technology problem, Tulio stood by, ready to offer guidance and a helping hand. If he didn’t know how to solve the problem, he used his resources to help me find solutions. Human connections proved incredibly valuable in accelerating growth.
- What type of human connections are you making?
- What could you do today to build stronger, more valuable relationships tomorrow?
- In what ways will the bonds you build contribute to your success?
Besides introducing me to Tulio, Chris Redlitz also introduced me to the importance of social media. Historically, prisons isolate people inside from the broader population. Yet Chris recognized that if people were going to overcome the challenges they would face upon release, they would need to build stronger connections. Although people in prison didn’t have direct access to the internet, through volunteers, they could use Quora to interact indirectly.
As a question-based website, Quora invites others to share their knowledge with the world. Anyone with access to the internet could use Quora to ask questions or offer responses. Those who responded with subject-matter expertise received more attention. When people asked about prison on the website, The Last Mile team would print those questions and bring them to San Quentin. Men who participated in The Last Mile program had subject-matter expertise on such topics and handwrote responses to questions that people asked. Volunteers from The Last Mile converted the handwritten responses into a digital file and published responses on the Quora website.
“You should open a profile on Quora,” Chris advised me during our first meeting. “Start answering questions about prison.”
When I returned to my computer, I logged into Quora and began to explore. In the search field, I typed prisons and saw all types of questions. I started to answer, always being authentic about my experience. Responses I wrote generated more than 1 million views, broadening my social network. Later, I had an opportunity to visit the Quora headquarters and meet team members who built the network.
That exposure to my writing opened many opportunities to advance the career I aspired to build. Editors of other publications contacted me and asked permission to republish more of my writing. Gizmodo, a popular technology website, published one of my articles, generating thousands of new connections. An editor from The Daily Dot, another online news service, invited me to contribute articles. I received invitations to contribute articles for many publications, and the publicity brought me to the attention of a professor at the University of California in Berkeley.
“I’ve got more than 700 students who want you to come speak about your experiences in prison,” Professor Ross said.
I’m hoping that readers in jails or prisons will see the pattern. Opportunities opened when I transitioned from Atwater to the halfway house in San Francisco. But had I not prepared myself during the decades I served, none of those opportunities would’ve opened.
When my sentence began, I didn’t have any academic credentials and didn’t know how to write a coherent sentence. I certainly couldn’t stand in front of large audiences and give a one-hour speech or write for publication. Exposure to Socrates taught me the art of Socratic questioning.
Instead of focusing on my struggles, I focused on what my avatars would expect. By anticipating their expectations, I had reason to avoid negativity and criminal influences. Instead, I focused on educating myself, contributing to society, and building strong support networks. Those decisions led to new relationships and opportunities. They empowered me through the time I served and eased my adjustment upon release.
If you’re in a challenging situation, look around. Determine whether it makes sense to network with the people around you or whether you should work to connect with people you want to meet in the future.
In the months that followed my release, my social media profile grew. By posting regularly on Facebook, thousands of people ‘liked’ my public page. On Twitter, my followers grew into the thousands. On LinkedIn, I could build an online resume where anyone could read about my passion for improving the outcomes of our nation’s prison system. More than 1,000 people followed my progress through LinkedIn.
By building a more extensive social network, I could claim more authenticity. Instead of hiding from my criminal background, I lived transparently, with every step relating to the successful life I intended to build. Anticipating that others would judge me for the bad decisions I made when I was 20, or the decades I served in prison, I created tools, tactics, and resources. Those resources would influence their judgment. I could populate the record with articles I wrote or presentations I made, influencing others along the way.
By influencing leaders, I could open more opportunities. Some of those opportunities brought financial resources, but many did not. Either way, every investment of time I made to spread awareness about the criminal justice system paid enormous dividends. They brought the experience that I needed, new relationships, and new opportunities to persuade others to assist my transition into society.
The stronger my social network became, the more opportunities opened. While in the halfway house, NBC Bay Area Proud profiled my work, PBS NewsHour featured me on a segment, and organizers of a TEDx conference in Silicon Valley invited me to present. That exposure led to more credibility. I leveraged credibility to further my quest to improve the outcomes of our nation’s criminal justice system while simultaneously working to build a career.
- What efforts have you made to broaden your support network?
- In what ways do you value the support network you’re building?
How does your support network influence your daily adjustment?