JUST A FEW days after his 28th birthday, Steve Lacerda went to a local bar with his buddies to celebrate. Lacerda, who had graduated from UC Santa Barbara and was working as a network troubleshooter for a startup in the Bay Area, met a woman there. The two of them got to talking and, after too many drinks, Lacerda decided to take her for a ride on his motorcycle. She hopped on the back. Lacerda began driving. He crashed. She died.
“I look back at it now, and I’m like, I don’t even know what the hell I was thinking,” says Lacerda, who at the age of 42 has been sober ever since.
Lacerda served nearly 12 years behind bars for driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter. Finally, in June, he was released from San Quentin State Prison on parole. Adjusting to life on the outside has been far tougher than he ever imagined. The swaying trees. The bright colors. The omnipresent smartphones. All of it overloads his deprived senses. The drive from the prison gates to his mother’s house, alone, gave him extreme motion sickness.
But Lacerda 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.
Lacerda was part of a new work program inside San Quentin called The Last Mile Works, which is essentially a web development startup inside the prison in which inmates build websites for businesses and organizations on the outside. An offshoot of the non-profit The Last Mile, which teaches coding skills inside prisons, The Last Mile Works pays people like Lacerda $16.79 an hour and, so far, has worked with companies like Airbnb and Dave’s Killer Bread on small web development projects. Later this month, its biggest project yet—a full redesign of the Coalition for Public Safety’s website—will launch, adding to a portfolio of work that Lacerda is eager to shop around as he looks for a job.
Among all the problems with mass incarceration in the United States, prison work programs are especially fraught. The 13th amendment eliminated slavery, except as punishment for a crime. Now, prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry according to the Prison Policy Institute. And yet, often, prisoners are paid as little as 23 cents an hour. Before he began working with TLM Works, Lacerda's job in San Quentin’s machine shop paid 39 cents an hour.
Venture capitalist Chris Redlitz created TLM Works as a way to address this problem of what is essentially involuntary servitude. It was the natural evolution of his non-profit TLM, which since 2010 had been teaching business and coding courses to inmates at San Quentin. Over the years, some of the students, including Lacerda, became proficient developers. “The talent pool we have access to is pretty phenomenal,” Redlitz says of the men in the program.
By building a dev shop in the prison that works with real clients, Redlitz thought, he could give graduates of the coding course well-paid work using skills that could land them well-paid jobs on the outside.
TLM Works launched in October (WIRED covered the launch), and since then the team has completed about 10 projects. To skirt the prison’s strict rules against internet access inside, the organization set up a server on site and worked with the company WP Engine to create a virtual environment where the TLM Works team could collaborate on website builds, without accessing the internet. Similar to any other dev shop, clients communicate with the team through a program manager inside the prison.
So far, most of those clients have been organizations with a social mission, including the criminal justice reform advocacy group Coalition for Public Safety. “It’s an opportunity to live our values,” says Steven Hawkins, president of the Coalition. “One of the main ways to keep people from returning to prison is through employment opportunities.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to developing tech inside a prison, including restrictions that are often put on inmates' movement on any given day. “There are days we’ve been working on the site that our coders are on lockdown,” says Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach at the Coalition. “It’s a reminder of the lived human experiences of the people who are at the center of this work.”
Neither Hawkins nor Heiss had any reservations about employing prisoners to do this work, despite the stigma of exploitation that often accompanies prison labor. In 2015, Whole Foods committed to stop selling products made in prisons following public outcry. But what TLM Works does, Hawkins says, is entirely different, primarily because the wages inmates are paid are not only among the highest in the country for prison labor, they're more than twice the national minimum wage. “As folks have gotten trained in coding, there has to be the opportunity to actually engage in projects that test their skills.”
Other prison reform advocates agree. “This is a great example of a program that’s offering marketable skills that hopefully lead to meaningful employment after release, and that’s the best we can hope for when it comes to prison labor,” says Wendy Sawyer, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Institute. Sawyer would like to see programs like this scale to other prisons, as well.
Though TLM Works’ San Quentin dev shop has room for 96 coders, currently only 7 people are part of the program. Filling those seats will take time. Research shows incarcerated populations have much higher rates of illiteracy than the general population. And many of the people serving longer sentences are simply unfamiliar with today's technological environment. “That job isn’t something everyone can do,” Lacerda says. Redlitz’s first priority is to expand The Last Mile’s education courses beyond the five prisons where it currently operates. That, he hopes, could create a pipeline of tech talent at prisons around the country that could potentially take on jobs at TLM Works.
Lacerda hopes more people like him get to benefit from the program. While inside San Quentin, he says, TLM Works was “an escape” from the grueling life locked up. But, he emphasizes, “At the same time, you can’t escape prison.” Even a program like this one can’t counteract the damaging lifelong effects that being incarcerated can have on a person. That includes how it affects people’s ability to find a job afterward.
San Francisco is one of the few cities in the country that's enacted a so-called "ban the box" law, meaning businesses with at least 20 employees can't ask about job applicants for their criminal history. Still, Lacerda's resume—stacked with evidence of his technical abilities—is now directly tied to his time in prison. To tell any potential employer where he got those skills is to tell them that he was in prison in the first place. Three weeks since he became a free man, Lacerda has already been applying to web programming jobs around the Bay Area. He hopes the work speaks for itself.