Tech is connecting lives beyond the reach of the Internet
By Steve Hawkins
NB: This is the first of a new series of interviews conducted by Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety, featuring individuals taking the initiative to change the justice system within their sphere of influence.
Imagine being released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence.
You’re handed a bus ticket and left to make your way. How do you find housing? How do you find a job? How do you navigate roads or entire cities that have changed?
In our hyper-mobile world, the answer may seem simple: the Internet has the answer to all these questions, and to thousands of others you would have never even thought to ask.
But if you have been in prison for more than a decade, you have been suspended from the ever-increasing evolution of technology. You have no idea what Indeed or Monster or SimplyHired is. GoogleMaps, Instagram, and Facebook are foreign concepts.
Just over a month ago, The Coalition for Public Safety participated in an exciting day-long discussion at SXSW about the intersection of tech and criminal justice reform. Among the many topics discussed was the challenges people face when leaving prison to reenter a technologically saturated world. Although prisons restrict internet access to maintain secure facilities, the unintended consequence is often to leave people struggling to make sense of the internet age. For those who are still behind bars, connecting with family members who increasingly rely on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram becomes a difficult undertaking.
That’s where Marcus Bullock comes into the picture — quite literally. Marcus is the CEO of Flikshop, a company that bridges the technological divide to connect incarcerated people with their loved ones. The Flikshop app lets users create photo postcards, complete with a short message and image of their choice, directly from a computer or smartphone. The Flikshop team then prints and sends the postcard to jails and prisons across the country; a deceptively simple “hack” that makes connecting with loved ones behind bars as effortless as posting a photo on instagram.
Marcus shared a part of his story and his vision with us at SXSW, but I recently had the chance to sit down with him to hear about it in greater depth. The interview has been edited for clarity.
S.H.: Marcus, you have a remarkable story. After spending your formative years in prison, you found yourself in a position to apply your leadership and entrepreneurial bent to helping others. What was the genesis of what is now known as Flikshop?
M.B.: Thank you! Flikshop was completely an accident. After launching my construction business (Perspectives Premier Contractors) back in 2005, I wanted to share the moments that I was creating with my friends back in prison. I grew up in prison, and so those guys that I left behind were my “brothers,” and they desperately wanted to see the world around me. I tried searching for an app that allowed me the ability to easily share my life with them, as Facebook or Instagram does for the rest of my family, but nothing existed. So we created one!
S.H.: How did you get help (funding, developing a business plan, acquiring the technology, etc.) to get your idea off the ground?
M.B.: Through simple trial and error. I did not have any tech background, and I definitely did not realize how much money it would cost me to run a tech business. There was no business plan and there were no acquired technology resources. I simply got a few of my family members in a room, raised enough money from them to purchase some paper and server space, and then maxed out my credit cards and emptied my bank account into my idea. I must admit, I lost a ton of money, time, and even credit — but the return on that risky investment has been well worth it, as I see hundreds of thousands of families now use our technology to stay connected to their loved ones.
S.H.: From your perspective, what was the biggest hurdle that you had to overcome to bring Flikshop into reality?
M.B.: Not having any tech experience and very little money. I’m blessed to have run a successful construction business prior to launching Flikshop, so that taught me the value of entrepreneurship and what it takes to keep pushing, despite the headaches and the volatility of a blossoming idea. We were first to market, and we made it work, but there have been too many days when I did not think we’d make it this far. We’ve been tremendously blessed.
S.H.: How important was family to the process? Specifically, what did they do to help you, if anything?
M.B.: Family is the cornerstone of Flikshop — period! I love my family. They were there to help me understand the value of people with whom you’re stuck. Even during my incarceration, so many of them wrote me letters and sent me photos. It’s what got me through the darkest moments of my life. That’s why we place so much emphasis on keeping our families connected. No matter how much they get on my nerves, they all love me immensely and none of us are afraid to show it.
S.H.: Flikshop bridges a kind of technological gap between the world “outside” and the means of communication available to people inside prison. Can you talk about the importance of the communication and connection that Flikshop photos and messages enable?
M.B.: In prison, mail means everything. I’m often quoted as saying that getting mail is like hitting the lottery. There is an immediate sense of love and care every time your name is called by the correctional officer that is passing out the mail for that day. And because there are not any forms of social media, the world is becoming more and more isolated from those in prisons. We closed in the gap for our families and loved ones by being the conduit for a smile. We post funny pictures and quotes all the time on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Now folks in jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities are able to see the same pictures.
S.H.: Texting a photo is such an easy thing for people outside of prison. What are some of the most striking things that people who have never been incarcerated take for granted?
M.B.: Absolutely! Most people still take for granted what Flikshop will do for the recipient. For us, we’re overly exposed to other friends’ pictures of their children, pets, and even what they ate for dinner last night. But for those that are locked away from social media, they have no idea of how the world is moving around them. Sending a picture from your day, the food you ate, the kindergarten graduation, or even the funny meme that you created…well, when someone in prison gets it in the mail, there is an immediate sense of overwhelming joy. Overwhelming!
S.H.: Can you give some details as to how many people have been connected with Flikshop over the history of the business?
M.B.: We’re excited to say that we’ve connected over 125,000 families, and have shipped over 300,000 photos to date.
S.H.: What’s the coolest interaction or connection that you’ve seen take place through the Flikshop app?
M.B.: The coolest thing has been our ability to connect thousands of families this past Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season because of our partnership with John Legend and his amazing organization #FREEAMERICA. Because of his generous donation, we were able to give away a free Flikshop Credit to anyone who downloaded the app. This allowed us to see an uptick in smiles from so many children who were Flikshopping their parents. There is no better feeling than to walk into the office and see so many printed Flikshops that are being shipped from children who would have never been able to share their Christmas morning with an incarcerated parent.
S.H.: As you’ve seen others transition into society, what are some common difficulties they have faced?
M.B.: The largest issues are finding safe and comfortable housing, finding employment, and learning how to repair broken relationships with the family and friends that were left behind after the prison sentence. We’re trying as hard as we can to eliminate some of those barriers with Flikshop and our newest program, Flikshop School of Business.
S.H.: Our country’s prisons and jails have a shockingly high rate of recidivism. What helped you stay out of that cycle?
M.B.: I was accountable to my mom. She wrote me letters, sent me photos, accepted those extremely expensive collect calls, and even visited me. There was no way I could come back home to a life that could potentially put her through that again.
S.H.: As a community, how can we better support people who are reentering society after incarceration?
M.B.: Do not be afraid of giving these men and women a chance. Most of us really want to come home and give back to our families and community, simply because we get another shot at life. When you’re in prison, you will meet so many people who may never come home again, and you hear stories of how they got hit with a life sentence. Their stories could have been my story…but I received another chance.
If more employers, family members, or even neighbors gave us a stronger push and added themselves to our support system, we would see stronger and more accountable communities, all influenced by those with a felony who work to ensure that their children will not follow in their footsteps.