How These San Quentin Inmates Are Earning the Highest Wages Ever Paid in Prison

Posted on July 12, 2018 by Dave Schools

“V96634 : That was my identity until I became a free man 2011.”

Tulio Cardozo, a 36-year-old man whose father was Venezuelan and mother was Indian, returned to the San Quentin State Prison in California in January 2017, but this time he wasn’t wearing prison blue.

Cardozo was incarcerated for seven years until his release in 2011. Six years after his re-entry, he returned to San Quentin State Prison as the Technical Manager at The Last Mile Works (TLMWorks), a web and mobile app development shop employing graduates of The Last Mile program, the first web development agency made up entirely of inmates.

The Last Mile prepares people in prison for re-entry by educating and training them with business skills and entrepreneurship. Graduates of the 6-month program, Code.7370, finish with highly-transferable software engineering skills.

Cardozo said the opportunity to work at TLMWorks was a dream come true. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would actually be able to park outside the gates, walk inside San Quentin, to work in my dream job and go home to my family at the end of the day.”

Judged by Code, not by Crime

His colleagues at TLMWorks share a similar story. WIRED published the story of Steve Lacerda, 42, another former inmate at San Quentin who served 12 years and went through the Last Mile program. He graduated and onboarded at TLMWorks, where he worked on small website development projects with companies like Airbnb, Dave’s Killer Bread, and the Coalition for Public Safety. Upon his release on parole in June 2017, Lacerda, the journalist writes, has some advantages as he re-enters society that most formerly incarcerated people don’t, namely, a resume full of web development projects he completed while inside and some $6,000 in savings he earned for that work.

That last detail is what sets apart Lacerda, Cardozo, and their other TLMWorks team members. Most inmates in the United States earn shockingly low wages in a limited number of prison jobs, from janitorial and food service positions, to agricultural field work and machine shops. Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that produces research around mass criminalization, published a report on how much incarcerated people earn in each state.

According to the report, the average hourly wage for regular state prison jobs was $0.14 on the low end and $0.63 on the high end.

This rate can amount to less than $5 total earned per day. Some state prison work programs don’t pay anything at all.

But when you consider the type of work inmates are paid to perform, the meager nickels and pennies become the best part of the job. Most prison jobs teach very few skills relevant to the labor market people will rejoin upon release, writes the PPI report, so the wages they earn may be the only payoff they see.

This is what makes The Last Mile and TLMWorks so remarkable. TLMWorks employees earn $16.79 an hour — the highest wage anyone serving time has ever made.

And they should. The work they’re performing in the public market is technical and specialized. The TLMWorks website states:

“Our engineers are capable front-end developers … Beyond a strong foundation in HTML/CSS and Javascript, they have experience working with Angular.js, D3.js, and Bootstrap. They are also trained to build websites using WordPress and Ruby on Rails.”

TLMWorks wins contracts just like any web design agency: based upon merit, performance, and results.

“Imagine, software engineers who are judged by the quality of the code they develop, not by the stigma of criminality,” said Chris Redlitz, cofounder of The Last Mile.

The most astounding result of the program is its immaculate success rate. To date (over seven years), exactly zero graduates of The Last Mile program have re-offended, said Redlitz. This is in stark contrast to the 76.6 percent recidivism rate at five years in the U.S., according to a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistic study.

Catalyzing Change in Prisons

The Code.7370 curriculum will be introduced to five more prisons in California this year, including two women’s prisons, Redlitz told Ted.com. “We hope to create a national program within the next five years.”

In January 2018, The Last Mile announced its first expansion into the state of Indiana, starting at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

Not only is The Last Mile growing quickly, but its pioneering approach is catalyzing change — other prison programs are taking note.

In December 2017, Girl Develop It launched its first code-class for prisoners inside Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle, Delaware.

In Seattle, Washington, Unloop, a nonprofit that enables people who have been in prison to succeed in careers in tech, is hiring instructors to teach software development at Monroe Correctional Complex.

Across the Atlantic in the UK, The Last Mile inspired Code4000, which displays this in the first paragraph on their homepage:

“Taking our inspiration from The Last Mile – an established prison coding programme that started in San Quentin but now runs in several prisons in California – we aim to teach people a life-changing skill and get them back into the job market.”

The life-changing power of education for prisoners is nothing new, but it has become even more palpable in the last few years thanks to new education programs in software development. The number of software engineering jobs is expected to skyrocket in the 2020s, causing some to call it as the next big blue collar job. Perhaps the U.S. will meet this demand by drawing from a labor supply that’s been untapped and stigmatized for decades.

It’s still early and the work has just begun. But thanks to the initiative of The Last Mile and new allied organizations cropping up around the country, it’s only a matter of time — and the willingness of individuals to act on a state-by-state basis — before recidivism rates begin to reverse and more stories like Tulio Cardozo’s become less and less novel and more and more the norm.