FYS 58 | Three Strikes

058: Transforming Under The Three Strikes Law with Kenyatta Leal

FYS 59 | Three Strikes

Society thinks that everybody is just sitting inside prison plotting out their next crime when they get out. Kenyatta Leal says that’s definitely not the case. There are men and women inside, who are trying to change their lives and trying to do better. Kenyatta fell under the three-strikes law and ended up in prison 25 years to life and ultimately ended up co-founding The Last Mile prison rehabilitation program. It took a long time for Kenyatta to take accountability for being incarcerated, but when he finally realized that he was the problem, he also realized that he must be the solution. That was then he did the most important thing he ever did while in prison, which was to learn how to ask for help. Kenyatta recounts his story of life in prison and how he finally turned his life around.

In this podcast, we’ve got a guy by the name of Kenyatta Leal. This is a guy that grew up in San Diego, California. He found himself in a lot of trouble. Ultimately, he ended up in prison 25 years to life. As he went along the prison system, he was moved into San Quentin, a notorious prison. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s the way it was back in the day. He counts this as a blessing because they started all these different educational type programs within San Quentin. One of the programs he was involved with, he became a Cofounder of The Last Mile. I’m very proud of this guy. He takes accountability for all the things that he did.

He played the blame game for five or six years when he was in prison. He didn’t think there’s going to be any kind of hope, but there was a guy who came up to him and asked him the ten most important things in his life that he wanted to accomplish. He wrote those things down and it became his vision board. The next goal for him was to execute how he could become a better person by doing day to day things that will lead him to those goals. We go through the whole thing. It’s very fascinating. I can’t imagine being in prison. In his case, he was there for nineteen years. He got out, and it’s a fantastic story of overcoming. It’s a little bit like the Shawshank Redemption, the character of Morgan Freeman. There were lots of parallels.

I feel blessed to be a part of this one. Please go on to my website, www.MarkPattisonNFL.com, sign up for the newsletter. Get posted every week with what’s going on with my climbs and with what other people are doing. If you could rate and review, it does help. Please continue to do that. You can find that link on my website. On podcast, it will lead you right to where you need to fill out a ratings and review. If you know anybody out there who would make a great guest, of people overcoming adversity and finding their way, please send me an email.

I listen to other podcasts, other more popular people that are out there. They talk about, “I’m so busy and I’ve got so many people coming at me.” It’s the same with me but I return all my emails. If you have a question, a comment or you have somebody who would be great for the show, please send them my way and you can find that through my contact page on my website. This episode is sponsored by our sponsor, Violets Are Blue Skincare. It does make a big difference. This was inspired by Cynthia Besteman, who overcame breast cancer. She found her way in her passion and that’s putting organic products on her skin. They’re going to my skin because I use her products. They’re great. Go to their website. Let’s go talk to Kenyatta.

Listen to the podcast here:

Transforming Under The Three Strikes Law with Kenyatta Leal

This is going to be a classic episode of somebody who has certainly overcome his trials and tribulations. On the pod, I’ve got Kenyatta Leal. Kenyatta, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

The big headline is you spent a lot of your lifetime in prison. I’m not sure why it’s so infamous but it’s San Quentin. You were up there for a number of years. You fell under the three-strikes law. You’ve had two completely different lives. Let’s start off with where you grow up. What would even anybody consider three-strikes for doing anything?

I grew up in Southern California, in San Diego. I grew up in a single parent household. My father abandoned me, my two brothers and my mom. As a young person, I had a lot of friends that had their fathers there and when my father left, he never came back. I never got a birthday card, I never got a Christmas present, and I never got a phone call, nothing. I don’t even remember the sound of his voice. As a kid, I grew up feeling like there was something wrong with me and with us as a family because he didn’t want to associate himself with us. My brother used to tell me all the time that he’s coming back. The fact that I couldn’t bring him back or make him come back made me feel helpless. I grew into those formative years, eight, nine, ten years old and into a teen with this hole in my heart. I felt like there was something wrong with me. I started developing this mindset of trying to fill that internal hole with external things. I wanted to make myself feel whole. It’s hard to explain. That’s what was going through my head as a young person. I had all these questions about why, but I didn’t have any answers. I had this pain inside me, this traumatic event that happened in my life, but I didn’t know how to express it. I didn’t know how to process it as a young person.

What kind of neighborhood did you live in?

FYS 59 | Three Strikes

Three Strikes: This internal conflict that I had was really the source of me beginning to make bad choices.

I lived in a pretty good neighborhood, in Southeast San Diego. We moved around and in San Diego County from different places but my household was pretty good. My mom worked two jobs, sometimes three jobs, to take care of me and my two brothers. I went to good schools, so my mom worked hard to make sure that we had that in our lives. This internal conflict that I had was the source of me beginning to make bad choices. I started looking up to people who were doing things that weren’t necessarily good. I grew up in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. As I came into my teens, it was the ‘80s and then the crack epidemic hit. It hit around 1984, 1985 or 1986.

I saw a lot of stuff happening in the street. I saw people that I looked up to are getting money in the street. I’ve always had this hustle mentality. I used it in the wrong way in the street. I had people that I looked up to that took me under their wing. I had easy access to drugs and things that were not necessarily good for me and my path moving forward. I would hustle those things, sell weed and sell drugs at a young age. Slowly but surely, I started moving off into other illegal activities including robberies, which ultimately led me to prison.

In terms of mentorship, your mom is working two, three jobs. She’s out there trying to bust her tail to make ends meet for you and your brothers. Where was she in all this, in terms of some of the choices you were starting to make? Was she there for that or just another void?

No, my mom was there trying to guide me along the right path. She did the very best that she could. She told me all the right things, but like I said, she was gone a lot. I would come home from school and she wouldn’t be home because she’d be at work trying to make ends meet for us as a family. I spent a lot of time in sports and different things, but after that, I was subjected to a lot of other things that were happening in the street. It’s those kinds of things that I got drawn to, the street activity that I saw. One thing led to another, me hanging out more with the wrong crowd. I eventually ended up dropping out of school. My mom was upset with that. She told me, “If you want to live in my house, then you have to go to school.”

I was about seventeen at the time and she gave me an ultimatum. If you want to stay here, then you have to stay in school. I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to go to work. I wanted to hang out with my friends. I was hanging out with an older crowd, I didn’t listen to my mom. I ended up moving out at the age of seventeen and moving in with some friends. When I looked back on my life, I made a ton of bad choices, but that was a significant one for me because it was only a couple of years later that I wound up in prison.

As a parent, it’s so vitally important to always have a presence in the house. The other thing is that with kids, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you grew up, having free and idle times as a teenager can be a recipe for disaster. I can certainly understand how all that happened.

When I look back at it now, I understand why it happened. At the time when I was in it, I wasn’t thinking about my future. I wasn’t thinking about the impact that the choices that I was making at the time could have on the rest of my future. I was only thinking about right then and what was right in front of me. I was trying to fit in with this crowd that wasn’t good for me. I was trying to be somebody that I wasn’t, trying to fill that void again.

We’ve all made choices. We all have bad judgment as kids, that’s all part of the growing up. It’s understanding what those responsibilities are and the kind of choices that you make. If you don’t have the right mentors in place, it can be very devastating. It was for you, in terms of what path lead for you. You fell under the three strikes. What were those three strikes?

In 1991, myself and a friend of mine robbed a restaurant. During the course of the robbery, we took money from a safe and a cash register. There was a person at the safe and a person at the cash register. There were two victims involved there. We got away with that robbery but the person that I committed the robbery with went back a week later and tried to rob the same place again without me. He got caught for doing that and he made a deal with the prosecutor to turn the State’s evidence on me or snitch on me to get less time.

Getting out of prison with the same mindset that one went into prison with is a very dangerous combination. Click To Tweet

When I got arrested, he told the cops where I was at. They came and got me arrested. I spoke to my attorney and he told me, “Your crime partner’s going to take the stand on you if you take it to trial. The best thing for you to do is to take a plea bargain.” I asked him how much time I can get off for plea bargain. He said, “We can get you five years.” Within that five-year plea bargain, it stipulated two counts of robbery because there were two victims involved. I took that plea bargain and ended up going to prison.

When they sentenced you to five years, is it one of these things where they sentence you to five years but you’re only going to get two or when they say five, they mean five?

They mean five but you can reduce the time through good behavior. That’s what I did. I went to the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. I was classified there and I was sent to California Correctional Center in Susanville, California. I was trained as an inmate firefighter. I got sent to fire camp and I fought fires there, and that was considered good behavior. I ended up doing about three and a half years off of the five years.

When I got sentenced to this time, you would think that when a person goes to prison, when the judge slams down that gavel and gives you a prison sentence, that’s like a wakeup call. It’s time to reflect and try to figure out why you got to that place. I didn’t do any of that. I was in deep denial about the role that I played in getting there. I blamed everybody else. It was my homeboy who snitched on me. It was the judge that didn’t give me a break, it was all these other things. I ended up getting out of prison with the same mindset that I went into prison with. That’s a very dangerous combination.

Were you learning any kind of vocational training towards anything beyond firefighting?

No, that’s what I learned. I was able to get out and use the skills that I learned as being a firefighter to work for a tree service. I was still engaged in illegal activity.

Were you eighteen, nineteen or twenty?

I went in when I was 22 and I got out when I was 25. When I got out, it was 1994. This is significant because in 1994, they passed the three-strikes law. What happened was the two counts of robbery that I pled guilty to, even though they came from one case, they automatically turned into two strikes. When I got out in 1994, I was a two-striker and didn’t even know it. I thought that the three-strikes law was for people like Richard Allen Davis that kidnapped and killed Polly Klaas, God bless her soul. I thought that the law was for a repeat offender. Here I am getting out in 1994 with this dangerous mindset for myself and my community. About five months after my release, I got pulled over on a routine traffic stop and the police found a gun in my car. That served as my third strike. I got sentenced to 25 years to life, for being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm.

You’re not pulling the gun on anybody? You’re driving a car and they found a gun that maybe wasn’t registered in the trunk or someplace in for that, you get almost 25 years?

What happened was I had a friend of mine that was with me. It was his gun but it was in my car. When we got pulled over, I’m on parole and so they’re able to search my car. When they found the gun, even though it was his, even though he came to court and testified that it was his, even though his fingerprints were on it and mine weren’t, even though the gun wasn’t used during the commission of a crime, they sentenced me to 25 to life. Not maybe 25, it’s 25 to life. In California, life means life. Only out of prison for five months, I got sent right back to prison for being an ex-felon.

Do you look back on that and look at it from the standpoint of you shouldn’t have been hanging out with this other guy from the first place? Did you not still recognize it that time between right and wrong? Was that not part of your mindset because of the way you’d grown up?

I knew the difference between right and wrong. My problem was I thought I was slick. I thought that I was smarter than everybody else. I thought that no one could see what I was doing. I thought that I could get away with stuff all the time. If I did get busted for doing something, it was always somebody else’s fault. I’m at that point when I look back, when I got busted for having the gun in my car, my mindset at the time was, how can I avoid the consequences of my behavior? There was nothing else that even mattered at that point. I was trying to get out of the situation by any means necessary.

How many years did you spend of being resentful? Even though you may have done these things, it doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem fair in the big scheme of everything. You weren’t doing anything illegal. You weren’t threatening everybody. You weren’t doing a drug deal. You weren’t robbing. It seems like when you know that the gavel goes down and the judge says, “You’re sentenced to 25 years to life.” My heart would sink and I’d be pissed.

I was very angry at a lot of people including the judge. There’s no way that the judge could have given me three-strikes had I not put myself in a position to get three-strikes. At the time I didn’t see that. The only thing that I saw was my homeboy snitched on me, and this crazy law that’s getting applied in a way that most people didn’t realize it was getting applied. I wore this victim jacket well. I was the victim and I was trying to gather all this information to support this position of being a victim, rather than holding myself accountable.

I did that for probably the first five or six years that I was in prison. They let you make collect calls from inside prison. I used to call a friend of mine all the time, commiserate with him on the phone about how I was being done wrong. This one particular day when I called him complaining about my appeal not going through, he stopped me dead in my tracks and he said, “The judge didn’t put you in jail, you put yourself in jail.” I started to argue with him about it. He said, “Don’t even call me until you get your shit together.” He hung up the phone on me.

I immediately went into denial mode and I started blaming him for not being a good friend, but his words kept ringing in my ear. I went back to my cell. I started thinking about the things that he was saying to me. The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized that he was right. I was the problem. I made these choices. I put myself in that position. This is another significant turning point for me because right then when I realized that I was the problem, I also realized that I must be the solution. If I have the power to create all this negativity, then I must have the power to create something different. I didn’t know how to do it. It was right around that time that I did probably the most important thing that I did when I was in prison, which was learn how to ask for help.

FYS 59 | Three Strikes

Three Strikes: I was the problem. I made these choices. I put myself in that position.

That is huge because there are a lot of males in particular that have a hard time asking for help. I don’t know why it takes a lot of people a long time to figure out. The sooner that you can understand about taking accountability, which you have, the faster you’re going to have a lot of people around you saying, “I want to help this guy.”

It’s hard to help somebody that doesn’t want to help themselves. I didn’t know what accountability looked like. In prison you would think that that’s a tough place to find responsibility or accountability. There are a lot of guys that are inside prison that are on this trajectory of change and transformation in their own lives. I was fortunate enough to find people in an incarcerated setting that were on this path. I try to glean from them information that could help me, turn my life around. I knew what I did was wrong, and I wanted to make amends for that. I knew that I had to start with developing insight into how I got to prison in the first place. I didn’t come out of the womb being a thief, a robber or a convict.

I started working with some people in prison that took a liking to me and were trying to help me on this path of transformation and change. There’s this one guy that I remember who took a liking to me, wanting to help me. We were walking at the exercise yard one day and I was telling him about some of the things that I was going through and the changes that I wanted to make.

He’s asked me, “What’s important to you? What are your priorities in life?” He gave me a pencil and a piece of paper and he asked me to write down the ten most important things in my life. I wrote them down. I gave him the paper back, he looked at it and he looked me square in the eyes. He said, “You’ve got 24 hours in a day, you work eight hours and you sleep eight hours. How many of those remaining eight hours do you devote to these things on this piece of paper that you say are important to you?”

Give me one example of one of those things that was on that piece of paper.

One of the things that was important to me on that piece of paper was my family. I had shamed my family. I had put my mom through so much stuff when I went to prison. People don’t realize this that when a person gets sent to prison, the family and everybody that’s associated with this individual goes to prison with him. My mom and my family did time with me. I didn’t understand the pain that I put them through. One of the main things that I wanted to do was to rebuild those bonds of trust again with my family. I want to shut up and listen to what they had to say. It’s taken a long time. We’re still working on that in a lot of ways. That that was something that I set out to do at the time. I’m glad that I did, we’re a lot better off as a family now because of that.

Let’s go back to the piece of paper. You write down ten things, you come back and then you present them to him. What’s the next step after that?

I realized I wasn’t living it out in my life. When I showed him the piece of paper, I had to be honest with myself about how is this showing up in my life. I started to align my beliefs about what’s important in my life with my everyday actions, how I live my life. It was then that I started to regain control of my life again inside prison.

I love that. I call that my vision board. I’m looking here at my refrigerator and it’s littered with photos and pictures of inspiration. A lot of these are mountains I’ve been on or other things like that. It’s so important to have your goals. It’s great to have a vision board script, write things down, but if you don’t follow the micro steps to get you to where you want to go, they’ll never happen. It’s awesome that you had that mentor to come up to you and sounds like transform your life.

Society thinks that everybody is sitting inside prison plotting out their next crime when they get out. That’s definitely not the case. There are men and women inside who are trying to change their lives and trying to do better.

In the entire time, were you at San Quentin or were you at a series of different prisons?

I was at a series of different prisons. The encounter that I had with a piece of paper didn’t happen at San Quentin. I got to San Quentin in 2005. When I got to San Quentin, what I found were a ton of rehabilitative, self-help programs, a college program for higher education, and a bunch of different programs that a person who wants to change can immerse themselves in. That’s what I did. When I got there, I had friends that I knew from other places that were at San Quentin. They introduced me to the Prison University Project. I got involved in that.

One of the things that I wrote down in that piece of paper was my education. That was important to me. I went back to school, I got my GED, I became the first person in my family to get a college degree. I did it while I was inside prison. I dropped out of school in the 11th grade and I had an opportunity to go to the community college when I got out in 1994. I was paralyzed by fear. I was 25 years old. I didn’t know if I could compete with these young eighteen and nineteen-year-old kids just out of high school. I didn’t want to look like a dummy, so I stepped away from that opportunity. When I got to San Quentin and I found the Prison University Project, I thought, “This is an opportunity for me to make it right.” I made this goal for myself. I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to get straight As. I did it.

When a person gets sent to prison, the family and everybody that's associated with this individual goes to prison with him. Click To Tweet

How did you end up in San Quentin? How does that path happen?

When you first enter the prison system, they classify you. There are a number of different things that they use to create this classification score. If you’ve been in the military, if you’re married, what your crime is, if you have kids, all these things, they have a point system. However many points you end up with you, they have four different levels. Level four being the highest, level one being the lowest. I ended up going to a level three prison initially but I ended up getting in trouble in prison. They sent me to a level four prison.

Through good behavior, I was able to work my way down from a level four all the way down to a level two, which San Quentin is, and that’s the lowest that I could go, considering that I had a life sentence. They don’t let lifers go to level one prisons. Level two is as low as I could go. I’ve got to give it to God because it was by the grace of God that I wound up at San Quentin. I was able to get involved in these programs that have helped me turn my life around.

At this time, when you were headed towards San Quentin, are you still looking at this as 25 years to life?

I still had 25 to life that hadn’t changed. Something that had changed in me from when I had first started was that I could see hope for my future now. I started working on myself and understanding the things that I needed to do to be a better person and how I could be an asset to the community as opposed to a liability. It was through this change that helped me develop more hope. Hope is something that carries a person through prison. If you want to make it through prison or through any adversity, you have to have hope that you could make it.

I always use this analogy. If you’re ever in a pool fooling around with some people, have you ever gotten grabbed by somebody and held underwater maybe a little bit too long, fighting to get to the surface? That’s what I felt like in prison. I was swimming in the deep end and I had to fight every single day to stay above water so that I could keep breathing. As long as I can keep breathing, and I knew that I was going to have a date where I’d be able to go before the judge or before a parole board and let them see the change that I’ve made in my life. That is the insight that I developed about myself and I hoped for the best.

They’ve got that movie, Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman plays that grit role. He finally started to educate himself a little bit. He goes in front of the parole, and every year he knows he’s not going to be released. One day, he does. It sounds a little bit like your situation, the one difference in your situation from the movie was that you had this thing called hope, that you thought that by educating yourself and immersing yourself in all these different programs that would put you in the best possible position to get released even though you still have this tag of 25 years to life.

If you remember in the movie, Dufresne and Red were sitting in the Chow Hall. They started talking about hope. Morgan Freeman had been shot down a couple of times by the parole board. He was telling Dufresne that hope is a dangerous thing. It could get you caught up. Their buddy had hung himself when he got out, “Look what hope got Brooks.” What happened was later on in the movie, Dufresne had asked Morgan Freeman about something that he loved to do. He gave a harmonica to Morgan Freeman. He didn’t play it at first, but he started playing it a little bit and that was a big deal because it made him remember the possibilities about life. Just because you’re in prison, you don’t want to give up that light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a choice that all of us make. He saw that Red had made that choice to blind himself from that light. He gave him that harmonica and helped him remember. He started educating himself but he ended up getting out.

Hope is something that really carries a person through prison. Click To Tweet

For me, it’s same thing. I had people in my life that intervened. They helped me stay focused on that light at the end of the tunnel. When I got to San Quentin, there were a ton of guys that were engaged in this process to change. It was at San Quentin where I saw the first person that I’ve ever seen with a life sentence get out of prison. This was a guy who had a gang related murder. He’s involved in a murder of another individual, but he was a leader inside San Quentin. He had transformed himself. He had gotten educated and became a facilitator of all these programs. He had done all the right things. He got shot down by the parole board about five times, just like Morgan Freeman did.

He kept going, he got found suitable and he got out. Then I saw another person get out and another person and another person. This could happen for me if I continue forward, if I stay focused on this light at the end of the tunnel. If I continue to work on myself, my day is going to come too. In 2012, California passed Prop 36, which was an amendment to the three-strikes law which made me eligible for resentencing. It wasn’t like a get out of jail free card.

I actually had to go before the judge, the same judge who sentenced me to life in prison, and demonstrate to him that I was no longer a danger to the community. I had put together all the good stuff that I had done, as well as all the not so good stuff that I’d done when I was in prison. I held myself accountable for that and presented it to the judge. He reviewed everything and he agreed to resentence me to seven years. About five days after my resentencing, I walked out of San Quentin a free man after nineteen years in prison.

Let’s go back to prison before we go forward into what you’re doing today, which is remarkable. Is it hard to keep your nose clean? Not necessarily that you’re looking for trouble. You’re on this path, you’re reading, you’re learning, you’re involving yourself in these different programs that San Quentin has set up. There was this element inside the walls. You walk around the corner and somebody’s got their eye on you, and they want to beat you up or drag you in somehow or another that there’s going to be trouble lurking around the corner.

FYS 59 | Three Strikes

Three Strikes: Prison is a very racially charged environment. When you go prison, you have to align yourself with your race.

Prison is a very racially charged environment. When you go to prison, you have to align yourself with your race. If you were to go to prison, you’re white. You would have to align yourself with the white guys. If you hung around with the black guys or the Mexican guys, then the white guys would want to do something bad to you. They would look at you as a traitor. Certain things like drama can happen between racial factions. Let’s say there was something that happened, that I didn’t have anything to do with, between a white guy and a black guy. Next thing you know, a riot happens between blacks and whites. What happens is it doesn’t matter if you’re involved in it or not, there’s no discrimination. When it’s a green light between whites and blacks, that means you have to get involved. If you don’t get involved in your own race, they’ll do something to you.

That happens a lot on the level four and level three yards. As you get down to lower minimum security prisons, there’s less of that violence. San Quentin is probably the lowest level security prison certainly that I’ve been to, but the environment there is completely different. One of the things that I attribute that to are the education programs and the self-help programs. It changed the hearts and minds of the men that are there and through that, changed the culture of the prison and the yard.

It almost sounds like an incarcerated college. There’s such a drive towards all these different programs, then you sprinkle in that little thing called hope. Let’s talk about The Last Mile. How I originally found you was through Chris Redlitz. I was listening to Lance Armstrong’s podcast and he had former inmates on and Chris. I was like, “What is this Last Mile?” I went and I Googled it. I was fascinated by all these educational programs that were going down. In this case, it’s an entrepreneurial endeavor that has launched at San Quentin. All these amazing things have come out of it. People like yourself have found success and other people from outside the wall have come in from Facebook and other programs. Other companies had an impact on these different guys’ lives and hired some of these different people that have been released. Tell me about The Last Mile.

The Last Mile is a phenomenal program headed up by Chris Redlitz and his wife, Beverly Parenti. Chris got invited to San Quentin in 2009 or 2010 somewhere around that time. I had been at San Quentin for a few years. I was already deeply engaged in my process of change. I graduated from college and was a facilitator of a bunch of different programs. One of the programs that I was involved in was a financial literacy program. Chris was invited to come in and give a talk about business and entrepreneurship. San Quentin is geographically located in Marin county, which is a fluid community. I’m in Northern California and Chris used to take the ferry from Marin into San Francisco every day because he was a venture capitalist, his office is in San Francisco. He used to ride the ferry past San Quentin every day.

Somebody from the community of Marin invited him into San Quentin to give this talk. He thought he’d come in and do a half hour talk. What he found when he entered San Quentin were a group of men that were smart, engaged, focused, on business, and they wanted to learn. Chris came in that day and he left about three hours later, blown away by what he’d seen. What he saw at San Quentin were a bunch of men who had the same aptitude as the founders and CEOs of the companies that he invests in as a venture capitalist. He came up with this idea, he wanted to start an entrepreneurship accelerator inside San Quentin.

Chris approached the prison administration and some of the volunteers, they’re about the best path forward. He got approval to do it. He came in wondering who can we build this program around. I was selected to be part of the first cohort. When I was presented with this idea of an entrepreneurship program, I though, this is a great opportunity. I’ve always had this hustle mentality, this entrepreneurial spirit. I used it in the wrong way on the street. I saw my relationship with Chris and Beverly and my association with them as being a great opportunity for me to learn the truth about entrepreneurship, to learn how to do it in the right way. We teamed up and we started the Last Mile, myself, Chris and Beverly, James Houston, David Monroe, James Cabot and another guy named Eric. We all started the program together.

The program revolved around was figuring out what you’re passionate about and then figuring out how to solve a problem with that passion through the form of a business. We came up with these ideas. We distilled those down into some succinct business plans. We learned how to pitch these ideas at the combination of our program, which was the demo day. That’s our graduation. Through this learning process, Chris and Beverly were bringing in a bunch of people from the San Francisco and Silicon Valley Tech Community to help guide us and help mentor us and help us learn about entrepreneurship.

One of the people that they brought in was Duncan Logan. He’s the Founder of a company called RocketSpace based in San Francisco. It’s a technology campus, home to a bunch of different startups. Duncan was helping us with our pitches, and he came to our demo day. After our demo day, I hit him up. I said, “If I got out of here tomorrow, would you give me a job?” He said yes. This was in May of 2012 and November of 2012 Prop 36 passed. I was released from prison in July 2013. About ten days after I was released, I contacted Mr. Logan. I said, “Do you remember me? What’s going on with this job? Is there still an opportunity?” He said yes.

When I realized that I was the problem, I also realized that I must be the solution. Click To Tweet

I started at RocketSpace as an intern. I didn’t go into RocketSpace with the mindset of computer science or management. I did go in with this strong hustled mentality. I told Duncan, “I don’t care what I have to do here. If I got to scrape gum off the floor, if I’ve got to make coffee or dump trash, I’m going to be the best gum-scraping, coffee-making, trash-dumping person that you’ve ever seen at RocketSpace. Give me a chance.” I was able to work my way up from an intern into a management role and now into sales. The Last Mile helped create this opportunity for me. It’s helping create a lot of other opportunities in software development.

We started the program in 2010, with pure entrepreneurship. In 2014, we pivoted towards coding and teaching software development to men and women on the inside. We have guys that went through the program at San Quentin that have been released and are now working with Chan Zuckerberg Foundation fandom. A bunch of different tech companies that we’ve placed people from our program into jobs at. We’re helping change lives and helping change the narrative about what’s possible for people leaving incarcerated settings.

What was your pitch?

I love football. My pitch was a mobile app called Coach Potato. It’s an online coaching experience. Coach Potato gives you an opportunity to call the right place while you’re watching the game. You’re looking at your mobile phone or your tablet and you can call a place for your favorite team. If you call the right place then you earn points. You can level up in ranking and win prizes.

I probably could have used that back in the day when I was actually playing. What was it like when the Prop gets passed and now you’re going to be released and it’s that threshold that you walk through from prisoner to a free man? Who was there to greet you when you walked out?

When I first got out I had a number of people. My girlfriend was there, Chris and Beverly were there, and other people that were part of my support system were there to greet me on the other side of the gate. When I walked out of San Quentin, people have asked me this question a lot about how it felt and I truly can’t put it into words. If there was one word that I could use, I would just say joy. It felt so good. There’s no word that I could use to fully capture what it felt like. I often wish that I was able to take that feeling and put it in a bottle. I could take it and walk around and pour everybody a cup of what it tastes like, so that they could take a sip of that and understand what it feels like. It was amazing because here I was sitting in prison with a life sentence, had gone through all this stuff and now I was finally free again.

Yes, it sounds like a feeling of gratefulness.

That too. There was no way that I would have made it through that by myself. There was no way that I’d be where I am today, had not people invested their time and energy, believing in me, in what I can do. A lot of people that come along into my life and help guide me in the right direction.

I want to take this thing full circle and go back to where we started. Your mother, where was she at this time when you got released?

My mom lives in Arizona. She wasn’t able to travel to me, to San Quentin when I got out. I immediately went to go see her though.

The reason why I say that is because you mentioned that she was so disappointed in all the choices that you made. You took accountability for all those things ultimately. The disappointment that she had. That would have been a hard thing to do for her and for you to go through and reset everything. You go through the educational system and now working at RocketSpace. You’re doing public speaking and doing other things. What a phenomenal transformation for anybody to make it through something like that. It seems to me she would have gone from complete disappointment to being so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished.

Yes, my mom was definitely disappointed in the choices that I had made. She never lost hope in me. My mom always saw the light at the end of the tunnel for me. She used to come to visit me at every prison that I was at. She wrote me a letter. She sent me money. She supported me, accepted my collect calls, my mom never gave up hope on me. Even through the toughest times, she always loved me, that unconditional love that a mother has for her children. I don’t know where I’d be without her. She’s been my rock this whole time.

It takes a village. Your village had a lot of people in there. It was Chris and Beverly and a lot of people. The mentors that you talked about, the guy that gave you a piece of paper, your mother and I’m sure there’s a whole lot of other folks that are on that list. Sometimes you have to put yourself in the best position to have those things come at you and you never know what happens. In your case, you seriously turned it around. I’m so proud of you.

FYS 59 | Three Strikes

Three Strikes: There are only two things that come out of a choice that you make – that’s a consequence or a reward.

Thank you so much. I remember before I told you that at the time that I was making these choices, I didn’t understand, the impact that they would have on my future. As time gone by, one of the things that I learned that was powerful for me in prison was that there are only two things that come out of a choice that you make. That’s a consequence or reward. I had to stop and look at myself and be honest with myself about my life.

What was I experiencing more of, consequences or rewards? When I was in prison, with a life sentence, that’s a heck of a consequence that you have to live with. It was all about changing my life, changing the way that I think so that I could change the way that I behave and get a different result at life. I’m experiencing so many rewards from the choices that I make and I’m grateful for all the support that I’ve received over time.

There’s no question that you are for sure a reward for me to be on this podcast. I’m very grateful for that. You’re also public speaking out there, right?

Correct. I put in my two weeks’ notice with RocketSpace. I’m going to be joining the Last Mile team full-time. I’m going to be doing a lot more evangelists work for the organization. I’m sharing my story, going into different prisons around the country and working with men and women to help them turn their lives around too. I want to be able to return to these men and women who are coming out too.

Where can people find you?

They can find me at @KenyattaLeal on Twitter. I’m on Facebook and you could reach out to me at TheLastMile.org. You can go to our website and check us out there and I’m available there as well.

I truly am grateful for you coming on the show. The best part of this whole thing is that you’re paying it forward by going back into the prison system and trying to evangelize how people can actually transform their lives and that’s impactful. Congratulations.

Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on the show. If I could be a small glimmer of hope for somebody else to help them in their process of change, then I feel like I’ve done something good.

Have a great day and I appreciate you coming on.

You do the same. Have a good one.

Resources Mentioned in This Episode: