5. Support Networks Accelerate Growth Opportunities
Earlier, I wrote about rules in the halfway house that required me to have a job. So long as I had a job that paid a steady paycheck, my case manager in the halfway house authorized me to leave. My friend Lee was more like a sponsor for me than an employer. He set a schedule for me to work 10—hour shifts, Monday through Saturday. I reported to an office and sat at a desk, but instead of doing work for Lee, I focused on creating a business. First, I needed Lee to see the vision.
I persuaded Lee that our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration was one of the greatest social injustices of our time. Although it would take time, I convinced him that a need existed for programs and services to help people emerge from prison successfully. He encouraged me to develop a plan that would lead to a sustainable business providing products and services that would improve outcomes of our nation’s prison system.
My first challenge was learning how to use technology effectively. The world had changed during the decades that I served. I went to prison at a time when Bill Gates was talking about a time when there would be a computer in every home and on every desk. When I returned to society his vision had become a reality. We didn’t only have computers in every home and on every desk, but also in everyone’s pockets. Since I’d been away during the hyper-growth era of technology, I had to learn how to use computers and the Internet effectively.
Although most people used personal computers powered by Microsoft operating systems, I’d read that Apple products were easier to learn. On the Saturday after I transitioned to the halfway house, Carole and I visited the Apple store. I purchased a MacBook Pro and a 27” iMac desktop computer. Knowing that technology could help me reach a wider audience, I spent my first weeks on the job learning how to use these fascinating products.
While I was in prison I didn’t have much access to computers. I read many books about the development of the Internet, search engines, social media, and software applications. Yet when I began working with my 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 at the hospital, she would sit at desk beside me to work on her studies. I liked having her close by and she was always willing to assist when I had questions about technology.
I began learning about WordPress, the powerful platform for building websites. When Carole first came into my life, we purchased the domain name MichaelSantos.net because the dot-com domain wasn’t available. Carole retained a web developer to build our new website. I published thousands of articles to document progress I made through my final decade in prison. Toward the end of my journey, we were able to purchase the domain name MichaelSantos.com for $1,000 and we began making the transition from MichaelSantos.net to MichaelSantos.com. I wanted to have a central location that would demonstrate my authenticity. Since Carole was busy with her career and school work, I needed to educate myself quickly on how to use WordPress so that I could manage my own websites.
I made some critical errors in the beginning. By switching hosting companies and redesigning MichaelSantos.com, I lost thousands of articles and journal entries that I’d made over the years. For decades, I wrote a daily journal entry 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. Unfortunately, I lost all of those records with my decision to switch from one web-hosting company to another. We pay a price for inexperience. In time, I became more fluent with WordPress and with social media.
Although I didn’t understand much about using technology or computer networks, my adjustment through prison gave me other skills. One prong of my adjustment strategy was building support networks. If I could build strong support networks, I believed that more opportunities would open in prison and upon release. The goal of building strong support networks influenced my Socratic questioning: What steps could I take today to influence people to believe in me tomorrow?
Those types of questions influenced my adjustment. The accomplishments I made while inside persuaded other people to believe in me. I could leverage those relationships to open new relationships. For example, earlier I wrote about my friendship with Justin Paperny. Justin was a graduate from USC and he had built a career as a stockbroker. Although he made some bad decisions that resulted in his being convicted of securities fraud, 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 he launched the Michael G. Santos Foundation and he invested time to build that nonprofit. He attended schools, workshops, and conferences that exposed him to problems people in underserved communities faced. By relaying those findings to me, I had information I could use in ways that would help us contribute solutions. Through our work, Justin met new people and he introduced those people to me.
Scott Budnick was one of the people Justin brought into my support network. Scott is famous for his role as a Hollywood producer of many blockbuster films, including The Hangover series, Starsky and Hutch, and other big-budget films. Scott’s passion, however, is juvenile justice. Scott founded The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit that strives to reduce recidivism. When I returned to society, Scott invited me to visit him in Hollywood. Rules of the halfway house, however, precluded me from being able travel. Until I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons, I could only go from the halfway house to my place of employment.
Travel limitations and halfway house restrictions were a problem. Human support networks were a solution. Scott said that since I lived in San Francisco, I had to meet Chris Redlitz. Scott then wrote an introductory email to Chris and I followed up by writing Chris about my background, telling him about my vision of building a business around my journey. I wanted to teach other people how to emerge from prison successfully. Chris responded within hours and he invited me to meet him.
Turns out that Chris Redlitz is an influential figure from the San Francisco Bay area. As a professional, he was a successful venture capitalist. Through his firm Transmedia Capital, Chris and his partners matched investors with technology entrepreneurs who wanted to build compelling businesses that changed the world. But in addition to providing funding, Chris also ran a series of business incubators, providing resources for technology startups.
Besides his business career as a venture capitalist, Chris also had a passion for improving outcomes of our nation’s prison system. When not putting multi-million dollar investments together, he and his wife volunteered at the San Quentin state prison. Initially, he went in to give a speech about entrepreneurialism. The prisoners 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 in human beings. They created a comprehensive curriculum that would teach business principles to people in prison. Later, participants in The Last Mile could learn how to write computer code from inside of the prison system.