Two women making a difference to 2.12 million people incarcerated in the U.S.
This year for International Women’s Day we introduce two inspirational women from The Last Mile (TLM) project: Beverly Parenti and Molly Rowe. Both women were interviewed about The Last Mile, Beverly from the position as a co-founder who remains heavily involved in expanding the program into more states and correctional facilities, and Molly as a TLM graduate who has taken on the role of TLM Returned Citizen Advocate and provides advocacy and support to fellow graduates after their release from prison.
As a brief explanation as to why we are celebrating the work of these 2 women for International Women’s Day – the reason is simple. Both women are involved in work that significantly impacts the lives of individuals, families, and communities. In 2020, the U.S. had the highest number of incarcerated people in the world, 2.12 million people were behind bars. Of this shameful number, a reported 76.6% of people ended up back in jail within 5 years of being released. Why? Because after being incarcerated, most of these people return to the same lives and circumstances that resulted in them committing crimes in the first place. In fact, after being in prison, the majority of these people find it even more difficult to secure employment that pays a sustainable wage. Adding to this sobering fact is that in the U.S. only 41% of people in correctional facilities hold a high school diploma. Education with training and the opportunities to accrue real world experience seems to hold the key to change this downward spiral. This is what TLM offers.
In fact, after being in prison, the majority of these people find it even more difficult to secure employment that pays a sustainable wage.
The initial goal of TLM, and the reason it continues to exist and expand, is to provide education and training to people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. In addition, TLM aims is to increase the opportunities to gain meaningful employment and reduce the risk of recidivism once the person returns to live in the community. And TLM is winning. Currently available in 17 facilities across 6 U.S. states, people are engaged in business or technology programs that incorporate paid industry apprenticeships post-incarceration, to accrue experience and expertise needed to embark in employment or possibly entrepreneurship. Best of all, the 745 students of TLM programs (since its inception) can boast a 0% recidivism rate.
Education with training and the opportunities to accrue real world experience seems to hold the key to change this downward spiral. This is what TLM offers.
Interview with Beverly Parenti
Although this description may cause her to cringe, Beverly Parenti is the quintessential inspirational woman. In the 1990s she was a founding member of First Virtual Holdings, the company responsible for the development of secure online banking – which has ultimately changed the world of shopping, banking, and paying bills. Beverly went on to hold leadership positions in tech accelerators, advertising, financial services, digital media and consumer products.
Beverly is currently on the Board of Directors for The Last Mile project, a non-profit organization she co-founded with her husband in 2010.
TLM is not affiliated with traditional universities or colleges. Where do TLM teaching staff come from?
TLM Instructors have education industry experience, Remote instructors are TLM alumni who have returned to society. Some have worked at tech companies and decided that giving back to the community is most important for their professional careers, others were exceptional students while studying inside prison classrooms.
Learning from those with lived experience provides role models for students and builds confidence that they too can find successful careers utilizing the skills they are learning.
How do students pay for the program?
All remote instructors and classroom facilitators are paid staff, either by TLM or the correctional department in each state. All TLM educational programs are tuition free for the students.
What is the enrollment process for people wanting to join a TLM program? How are the programs promoted within the correctional facilities?
Although each facility has their own processes and procedures, new programs begin with information sessions provided by the administration and when feasible with TLM staff in person. Once the program launches, the students themselves become the greatest source for attracting subsequent cohorts.
Is there a formal relationship between TLM and the parole boards?
No, there is not a formal relationship between TLM and the parole boards. We have presented to boards so that they are aware of the value and track record of our program. We believe that it helps increase the likelihood of parole since it shows extreme dedication and determination to garner employment in a high demand, high pay industry.
What is the San Quentin connection – and is SQ the best resourced prison in the U.S. as far as education programs, volunteer programs, media labs, etc.? It seems to be the prison that has all the media attention, why is this?
Due to its proximity to the surrounding tech community in the Bay Area, San Quentin has a large number of volunteers and education programs, manifold more than other facilities. Pre pandemic, there were over 1500 volunteers on record.
San Quentin is in an historic setting, houses California death row, and some of the most notable criminals in the carceral system.
San Quentin News has helped spread the word about activities inside as well as criminal justice issues. They have wide distribution to prisons and private subscribers as well as a website, built inside the prison by The Last Mile.
Interview with Molly Rowe
Molly Rowe is a graduate of the TLM program, and currently works as a TLM Returned Citizen Advocate. Since her release from Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), Molly has supported people as they transition back into the community after serving their sentence. This support is crucial to the process of establishing a new life, when it can seem that your identity is going to be forever tainted by a stint in prison. While TLM provides the tools and connections to start a new career, life is more than work – and people who have been incarcerated often need to curate the friends and family who are positive influences in their lives. This is where Molly’s role comes into play. She understands the post-incarceration anxiety of building a new life with new relationships and rules firsthand. She uses this experience, a solution-focused approach, and her infectious positive nature, to support the people she works.
Molly discusses the TLM program and how it has impacted her life inside and outside of prison.
How did you become interested in TLM?
To be honest, when I first heard about The Last Mile, I did not think I was smart enough to get through it. I had heard it was a computer coding program and for some reason thought that meant I needed to know math. I was working in the law library when the classroom facilitator came down and asked me if my name was Molly. He told me that he had heard about me from others in the TLM classroom. He said that I should apply for the next cohort because I would be a good fit. I still did not think that I was smart enough to do it, but I talked to my mom, and she encouraged me to apply. There were 4 spots open and 10 people had applied. I went through the interview process and 2 weeks later found out that I was selected to be in the next cohort.
What was it like studying while in prison? How was it different from earning a degree straight after high school?
Studying in prison was completely different than earning a degree after high school for many reasons. One is that earning a degree straight out of high school was easier because I already had the momentum of being in school. Another reason is that the flexibility of earning a degree after high school is easier because you can pretty much work on your own schedule and are not bound by the prison movement. But perhaps the biggest difference is that there is no internet in prison so everything that you learn is by book, videos, or other people.
What education programs were available to women at Indiana Women’s Prison? How popular were these programs? What were the alternatives to being enrolled in an educational program?
The education programs available at Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) are:
- Web development (TLM)
- ServSafe certification (Culinary)
- Service dog training (ICAN)
- Degree in liberal arts (College)
- Cosmetology (State License)
All 5 of the above programs are pretty popular at IWP. The alternative to being enrolled in a program is having a prison job— usually being a dorm cleaner, working in the kitchen, a pass runner, or other jobs that help the prison run better.
What facilities and resources did the prison provide for students?
There is an education building at IWP where all the programs are offered. They also offer tutoring for those who need to get their GED.
How was the TLM program run? Hours per week? Staffing? Mentoring? What were the program entry requirements?
The TLM program is run by a classroom facilitator who guides the class and makes sure everyone stays on task. When I was in the classroom, we had mentors come in Monday to Thursday evenings to help us with concepts that were harder to understand. The mentors were software engineers from the community.
The program was Monday to Friday, with 2 sessions per day (7:30am-10:15am, 11:30am-3:00pm). To be admitted to the program you needed to pass a basic knowledge test and an in-person interview. You also needed to have no conduct reports and only 18-36 months left on your sentence.
How did completing the program impact on your life after being released from prison? How might this of been different without the TLM program?
Completing The Last Mile impacted my life in so many ways. One of the biggest ways was I learned how to really learn and not depend on Google for the answers for everything. It also helped me with soft skills and gave me the opportunity to have a viable skill that I could use once I was released from prison.
Had I not been in the TLM program, I would have had to go back to working in the RV factories that are in my hometown. That would have put me right back into the environment that contributed to my incarceration.
You are now a TLM Returned Citizen Advocate. What is this role and what are your job responsibilities?
The main purpose of my role as a Returned Citizen Advocate is to advocate for those coming out of incarceration after me. I help them get involved in our community, find employment in the tech industry, help them with finding the basic needs that they have, and help each person define their goals and find their passion in life.
The statistics for TLM alumni are very positive, including an 89% employment rate and 90% continuing their education. Why do you think this is?
The low recidivism rate for TLM alumni is because we are like minded. Almost every person that comes from a TLM program, whether they have been in the program for a short amount of time or are graduates of the program, have a deep desire to completely change their lives. They have the desire to become the best possible person that they can be.
How do you see your future?
My future is bright. I am hoping to continue to grow and be the best version of myself possible. Since being released from prison, I continue to learn and grow. I have taken multiple classes to better myself. Within the next year I am working on starting a non-profit that helps returning citizens from TLM have housing that is reliable and helps them continue to hone their skills that they learned in the classroom.
In an ideal world, what do you think would be the most effective measures to implement to change the future of people who end up in prison?
More programs, more opportunities, to use prison as a rehabilitative program instead of just a punitive punishment.
Almost every person that comes from a TLM program, whether they have been in the program for a short amount of time or are graduates of the program, have a deep desire to completely change their lives. (Molly Rowe)
Further reading on the provision of education for incarcerated people in the U.S. is available on this website: Prison education across the U.S.