Shaka Senghor spent 19 years in prison for murder. Since his release in 2010, he’s become a teacher at the University of Michigan, a published author, a sought-after speaker (his 2014 TED talk is a must-see), and an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, which is how he and I met. Senghor paid his debt, and he’s a one-person testimonial to the value that exists in everyone.
And he doesn’t want to be the only one.
There are currently two separate, parallel debates taking place in Silicon Valley about the future of its workforce. One is about how the technology industry can be more diverse. Much of the effort to that end has focused on encouraging girls and people of color to embrace tech at a young age. The other conversation centers around immigration reform. Industry leaders argue that it’s vital to lure the talent necessary to fill the engineering jobs at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Dropbox. This is why Mark Zuckerberg created the lobbying group Fwd.US, although its record has been spotty.
I’m all for promoting tech and welcoming immigrants. But neither of these are enough. Not when there are more potential Shaka Senghors behind bars. There are more than 1.5 million prisoners in the United States, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. Our society is just now coming to terms with the cost of letting these people rot away in jail for decades. When rehabilitated ex-cons reenter their communities, they face a jarring cultural disconnect. Not only is it hard to find employment, it’s challenging to adapt to a world that presumes ever more technological literacy. When Senghor went to jail, laptops and suitcases were indistinguishable in size. The only talking car he’d ever heard of was on Knight Rider. But when he was released five years ago, “It was really like, ‘Welcome to an urban episode of The Jetsons!‘ ” he tells me.
Senghor admits that he still struggles with life beyond bars, and he’s made it his mission to help reintroduce others to society, including an immersion in tech. He’s teamed up with Van Jones—founder of Rebuild the Dream, onetime Obama green jobs czar, and CNN commentator—on #Cut50, Jones’s initiative (with Newt Gingrich!) to trim by half the U.S. prison population. Senghor believes his efforts can help reduce recidivism.
Other people are working to create opportunities related to technology for reformed felons. A program in California called The Last Mile is working to provide entrepreneurship training in prisons. Isidore Electronics, run by Kabira Stokes, hires formerly incarcerated individuals to recycle the electronics we might otherwise toss into landfills, proving that we don’t have to waste our gadgets or our fellow human beings.
We can do even more, which is why we should add tech’s biggest brains to the conversation. “The whole idea of coding is iterating and innovating around necessity,” Senghor says. “Well, in [a prison] environment, innovation and iteration are happening out of necessity.” He then regales me with stories of inmates creating tattoo guns out of tape players and heating water without a microwave. In prison, terms like DIY, makers, hacking, and minimum viable product come to life every day.
What if the resourcefulness and hustle currently trapped behind bars could flood back into a nation that needs it? The labor potential of these soon-to-be returned citizens could be as profound as getting an 8-year-old excited about tech. And the payoff could come much sooner.