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From self-help groups to self-made man

Reporter Tommy Shakur Ross


KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report, a series of stories focusing on the experiences of these men, written and produced by those living inside the prison's walls.

James Houston says that when he was imprisoned in 1996 at age 21, he was an angry, self-centered, rebellious man who felt he had no purpose in life.

“When I committed my crime, all I saw was me and my victim,” he says. “I didn't realize that I had damaged not only his life, but also his family and [that] it had an effect on the community.”

Houston was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life. It was a dark period for him, and it took a long time to come to terms with what he had done. It really hit home when he had a visit from his three year-old son.

“To see him at the end of the visit with all my family members crying because he wanted to stay with me kinda broke me down,” says Houston. “I really realized how selfish I had been.”

Houston says he knew he needed to start changing his ways if he was ever going to rehabilitate himself. When he was transferred to San Quentin in 2005, Houston began to work deeply on personal growth and development, thanks to the self-help programs available in the prison.

Houston says he benefited from San Quentin’s Prison University Project -- it was his primary reason for wanting to come to San Quentin in the first place. Houston earned his AA degree in 2010.

Beyond his education, Houston was also motivated to seek self-help by observing his fellow inmates. “It was unusual for me to see another man offer you something and not expect nothing in return,” he says. “So I … started imitating a lot of the things they did.”

Today, Houston is 39 years old ­ He’s a soft-spoken man, clear-eyed and well-groomed. Replace the prison clothes he's wearing with a suit and tie, and you might see him as a facilitator, or a mentor, or an activist. All titles that could now be used to describe him.

“It has been a good way to give back and reach out to our community,” he says. “Because with a life sentence I never knew if I would get out. So I had to do what I could from here.”

A suit and tie might in fact become Houston’s new uniform, because his latest focus has been on building a business through the self-help program The Last Mile.

The Last Mile teaches inmates to channel their skills into entrepreneurial endeavors. There’s assigned reading, and Guy Kawasaki, Jon Hamm and MC Hammer have come to visit class sessions.

As a participant, Houston was given the opportunity to share his business plan during “Demo Day” at the prison. Houston created a pitch, and “anywhere from 50-11 venture capitalists” came to hear him give a five-minute presentation on his business, with the possibility that it might get picked up for development.

But the biggest test for Houston came in February 2011, when he had his first appearance before the board of parole. During the hearings, he was able to show the board that during the past 15 years, he had become a different man. Soon after, he was notified that he was found suitable for parole.

“I am no longer in their eyes ... a threat to society,” Houston says. “The board members are saying, ‘I wouldn't have a problem with you living next door to me.’”

Houston says he couldn’t have achieved so much success without the support systems available to him. “If it wasn’t for the self-help groups and the changes I've made there is no way I would have been found suitable.”

While in prison, Houston pitched the idea for a nonprofit, Teen Tech Hub, successfully. The group will focus on at-risk youth, aged 9-14, emphasizing leadership, life skills, and advanced tech training. Erick Moore, a venture capitalist from Richmond who had wanted to create a similar program as well, connected with Houston.

“He found out I was getting out soon, so we started a partnership there,” Houston says.

On May 29th, 2013, James Houston went on parole. He now lives in Oakland, and is working in San Francisco as he gets his start-up together.

Click the player above to listen to the full story.

This is the latest installment of the San Quentin Prison Report radio project – a new series that brings you stories produced by men currently serving time in California’s oldest prison. You can listen to more stories from this series at www.kalw.org.