On March 26th, 2019 I went to the California Correctional Institute, a supermax state prison north of Los Angeles. I was there for cause – a good cause. I was volunteering as part of a “Prison Entrepreneurship Program” that is an employment, entrepreneurship, and personal development training program that helps the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to become successful, legal entrepreneurs and employees. The program has been around for over 15 years with at least three different organizations in different parts of the country operating. Graduates have an exceptionally low 7.5% three-year recidivism rate (compared to the national average of nearly 50%).
I was there for the entire day with about 50 other business leaders in a room with 65 inmates, or “Mavericks” as the program calls them. In order to attend the event, the Mavericks had to apply to the program and complete all the coursework and attend all the classes. Nobody who applies is turned down, but they must do the work in order to continue through the program.
Because I was just there for a single day I don’t know what all is involved in the coursework, but the Mavericks had spent months preparing for the day by learning interpersonal skills, public speaking, basic business concepts, writing a resume, doing practice job interviews, creating a business plan, writing their life story, and learning how to approach everything and everyone with a positive attitude and energy.
The day is very emotional. At some points it is heart-breaking, but the program is balanced with fun and joyful activities so that overall the day is uplifting for both the volunteers and the Mavericks. What follows is a pretty detailed recount of what happened over the course of the day, but it doesn’t do the emotional impact of the day justice. It is just the best I can do to summarize my experience.
I arrived early in the morning for the event. So early, in fact, that as I was going through security I was asked to join the staff from Hustle 2.0 to setup everything for the event. In other words, I got to help bring in all the food and drinks, and setup the tables, chairs, and sound system. After that work was complete the Mavericks were then let into the room. At that moment all the staff from Hustle 2.0 were off to one side of this large room huddling up to discuss their plans for the day and I’m at the other end of the room, suddenly surrounded by 65 heavily tattooed guys in their prison garb.
I quickly realized I had nothing to worry about because each guy I met was friendlier than the next, introducing themselves and asking me question after question. Each of them had a sheet with ice-breaker questions like “What do you do in your free time?” and “Was there a time in your life when someone gave you a second chance?”. They were all supposed to get their questions answered, and since I was the only volunteer in the room, they all wanted to talk to me.
It was at that point I glanced across the room through the sea of blue-clothed people around me and saw that Catherine Hoke had just noticed that I was the lone volunteer in the room. I gave her a quick thumbs-up that I was OK, and I could tell she was relieved and smiled back. Catherine is the reason for this program and the reason I had travelled across the country to go to prison. I had heard her speak about this program at a business conference and she challenged me to get involved. You can watch a video of her here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4J1pgxYTww
Suddenly, the song “My House” by Flo Rida came blaring out of the speaker system that I had helped setup earlier. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo35R9zQsAI The Mavericks all lined up in a double-row to form a tunnel and started cheering and clapping along to the song as the volunteers were let into the room, dancing to the song as they made their way down the tunnel high-fiving all of the Mavericks. I took my position in the tunnel with the Mavericks and high-fived the volunteers as they went by, getting some confused looks from some of them who were probably wondering where my prison garb was.
All the volunteers were treated the same way I was earlier – they were all greeted and asked the same ice-breaker questions. The volunteers also had sheets with questions and were asking Mavericks the same questions. I joined in and met even more of the group. After maybe 15 minutes we all took our seats, the volunteers on one side of the room, and the Mavericks on the other. At this point I realized that I have no idea what time it was. None of us had phones or watches, and there was no clock in the room. I think only a couple of people from Hustle 2.0 had watches.
After some reminders about the rules and instructions on how the restroom breaks work Catherine had each of the volunteers get up and introduce ourselves in 20 seconds each. Every time a volunteer finished their intro it was followed by a loud standing-ovation. I could tell this was going to be a high-energy day. During the ice-breaker exercise someone had mentioned that I should go by “Big Daddy from Cincinnati”, so I used that in my intro, which got a loud response from the crowd with a lot of hooting and hollering.
After that exercise Catherine reminded us that the day would be like a “worm” in that there would be fun high-energy activities like that, but also serious activities. At that time, she asked how many “lifers” were in the crowd, and about a dozen hands went up. She explained that Hustle 2.0 was open to anyone and that they didn’t turn anyone down who applied. She also explained that even though these “lifers” wouldn’t ever be able to put the curriculum to use outside of prison, they carry a lot of weight in prison and that they can recruit more people into the program.
We then broke into small groups and were prompted to discuss forgiveness – of both ourselves and of others. We discussed times when we were wronged and if we chose forgiveness or not. One of the Mavericks I was paired with discussed a time when he tried to shoot someone to avenge the shooting of his best friend. He instead hit an innocent bystander and that was why he was in prison. If he would have chosen forgiveness he probably wouldn’t be in prison.
Over the next couple of hours we did some different activities, including hearing the life stories of many different Mavericks and holding mock job-interviews and giving them feedback on their interview skills. Before I knew it, it was time to break for lunch.
After lunch we did the most memorable exercise “Step to the Line”. In this exercise they put two taped lines on the floor and we lined up with the Mavericks on one side, and the volunteers on the other, facing each other. Catherine would read off different statements and we would step to the line if they applied to us, and we would even wave our hands in the air if they really applied to us. Some of the statements were fun – like how many hours were spent preparing for today, or if you had to go shopping for clothes for the dress code. But they quickly got serious. Statements like “I never knew my father” or “I had a family member killed by gang violence” showed how big the divide of life experience was between those on the two sides of the taped lines.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room when statements like this were read:
“I haven’t had a vistor in over 6 months”
“I’ve done a stretch of time in solitary of at least 3 months……”
- “6 months…..”
- “a year……”
- “3 years…..”
- “5 years…..”
- “10 years”
“I’ve spent at least this much of my life behind bars: 5 years…..”
- “10 years…..”
- “20 years…..”
- “30 years…..”
“I was first arrested when I was younger than 25……”
- “10 years old”
You can watch this in another prison here: https://youtu.be/aQM4yelE58o?t=173 The video is a 360 degree view, so on a mobile device you can move it around to change your view, or on a regular computer you can use your mouse to change the view.
While we were doing the “Step to the Line” exercise I noticed a guy in a suit watching us. He hadn’t been in the room before, and he was standing next to one of the officers. He was watching the activity closely and commenting to the officer. After the exercise I quickly found out who that guy was. It was the warden of the prison and after we took our seats he gave a quick speech about how he heard about this program from the warden at Pelican Bay Prison and how great it was to have this program at his prison and how he wanted to have more participation. He asked every inmate in attendance to influence two other people in the yard to join the program, because if they did that it would get over half the yard participating and would help make the yard a much better place to be. The Mavericks also gave him a standing ovation and got him to try the hula-hoop, which he did. That got him even more applause and cheering. As an outsider I didn’t understand how unusual this was until later when I asked one of the Mavericks how often the warden addresses the population like that – and he said the last time he saw or heard from the warden was over a year ago.
After all that excitement we did some more small group exercises, including some individual business pitches. The volunteers provided feedback and suggestions and picked our favorites from each group. As the day drew to a close the Mavericks were given the option to choose either a final business pitch competition, or to play some games. They chose the games, which I can completely understand. Since many of them had a lot more work to do on their pitches, and they were with a group where they felt safe, some fun games sure sounded appealing. So we wrapped up the day with a party-like atmosphere and an epic “lip-sync” battle with the Mavericks prevailing 3-2 against the volunteers.
It’s an experience I won’t soon forgot, and I’m sure the stories from the day will be told and re-told over and over by the Mavericks for months and years to come.
If my story wasn’t enough, here’s a video of what the experience looks like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPLhD7KLrPI
If this is something you would like to do, you can get involved here: https://www.hustle20.com/
Here are two other organizations that also run similar programs: