Back at Pelican Bay

Posted on August 7, 2017 by Nick D'Antonio
Why I Returned to Prison with Defy Ventures

“Nothing is so healing as the human touch.”

It was different for me this time around. I knew what to expect: Crescent City’s single main street. The sound of the lighthouse alarm off the pier. The tree covered roads that lead to the prison.

Having done it before, it was all familiar. The first time I visited Pelican Bay State Prison, I felt no small amount of apprehension for what was to come, and what I would see. This time, however, I felt excitement—excitement for the men I had met on my last visit to the prison. Excitement for what they, themselves, had achieved under Defy’s guidance. If you take one thing away from this blog, it’s that anyone, no matter their past, is capable of self-transformation.

For the second time this year, I joined the team at Defy Ventures for a weekend at Pelican Bay State Prison. Just a few miles off the beautiful California coastline, Pelican Bay’s notorious reputation doesn’t attract visitors to the region like the magnificent redwoods that surround it. Nevertheless, here I found myself, dedicating another four days to the EITs—entrepreneurs in training—of Defy Ventures, a group of men who were graduating from Defy, having spent months studying and applying skills as entrepreneurs, as leaders, and as transformed men.

This is what Defy does, and it does so exceptionally well. Defy provides the invaluable gift of a second chance to incarcerated individuals motivated to transform their lives, restore their dignity, and allow them to one day create value in their communities and families.

I’ve never known someone who was incarcerated, and certainly not for the lengths of time that Defy’s EITs are serving. But this visit, the familiarity of friendly faces set in. All the guys on A Yard, with whom I spent my time in April, recognized me, and I recognized them. Mariano. Millard. Cris. Caesar. Angel. Sal.

It was a privilege to be back. It was a privilege that they wanted me to come back. This wasn’t about their CDCR—California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—labeled clothes, their pasts, or being back in prison. This was about their business pitches, meticulously and thoughtfully crafted and rehearsed, and their personal statements of transformation for future parole hearings. This was about the amount of hard work these men put into this program. This was about their graduation ceremony at the end of the weekend. This was about the pride and joy they felt for what they had accomplished.

This graduation weekend was highlighted by successful pitches, family reunions, and cap and gowns. Everyone was so proud of what they accomplished. When Cat Hoke, founder of Defy, asked the room, “Who believes this is one of the greatest accomplishments of your life?” nearly every hand in the room went up.

But, what they accomplished in their time with Defy was far from easy. “They had to work hard for it, nothing was given to them,” the prison’s warden, Clark Ducart, said. Self-transformation takes immeasurable work and practice—but these graduates were never alone. They had the community of Defy to support them each step of the way.

Prison staff noted that they saw, for the first time, inmates from all racial backgrounds and gang affiliations in the same room, treating each other as equals and with mutual respect. They were laughing together, cheering for each other. The warden says that he and his staff have “seen tremendous changes in the inmates,” remarking that they had transcended their pasts, and looked forward to a brighter, more fulfilling future.

For programs like Defy, there exists no small amount of skepticism about their work. Someone who has never met these men—never seen their desire to better themselves and to contribute meaningfully to their communities, never seen their families who stand behind them and support them through every step of their transformation, and never watched as they accepted their degrees, hard fought and demonstrative of their personal transformation, with pride and support from their loved ones—might wonder if anyone, especially someone incarcerated, can really change.

The first time I visited Pelican Bay, I saw only the beginning of Defy’s ability to help these men change their lives. And, of course, I haven’t seen the last of it. It’s certainly easy to be skeptical that anyone can make a real personal transformation, but I can say that I’ve seen it firsthand. All we need is a second chance, and we can do anything.

Just ask the guys in Pelican Bay.


As a director of strategic partnerships, Nick D’Antonio is responsible for sourcing, analyzing, and managing venture philanthropy investments and working alongside organizations on their path to meaningful change. Prior to joining Stand Together, Nick spent five years in workforce development with the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute and sat on the national steering committee of Manufacturing Day. Nick is a graduate of the Kogod School of Business at American University and a certified project management professional by the Project Management Institute.