COVID-19 is keeping visitors out of prisons, but Flikshop has found a way to keep prisoners connected to their families.
It's easy for prisoners to walk out of prison on release day. But it's hard to re-enter the world they had left behind. Returning citizens face 44,000 legal restrictions on things like what kind of work they can do and where they can live—not to mention the social stigma that comes with having a criminal record.
Marcus Bullock knows firsthand what that's like. He was sentenced to eight years in a maximum-security federal prison for carjacking when he was just 15. He was released in 2004.
Since then, Marcus created a much-needed business, Flikshop, to help other prisoners and their families. Flikshop is an app that helps users take photos from their phones, Facebook, or Instagram accounts and have them delivered directly to a loved one’s prison cell as postcards, for as low as 79 cents each.
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marcus and Flikshop are partnering with Prison Fellowship, with support from Stand Together, to help families stay connected during a worldwide lockdown—just like his mom once did for him.
THE POWER OF A POSTCARD
While Marcus was incarcerated, his mother, the Rev. Sylvia Bullock, sent him cards and letters every day. That's unheard of for most people in prison. The cards often included a photo of everyday things—a burger, her work office, a car she was thinking of buying. "Every single postcard … is a moment that can be cherished in a prison cell and experienced over and over again in that person's memory," Marcus says.
After his release, Marcus wanted to send cards and photos to his friends on the inside like his mom had done for him. But that's hard to keep up. Then he had an idea: What if there were a simple way to use technology to send letters to your incarcerated loved ones? Marcus launched Flikshop in 2012. The company's goal was simple but grand: for every person in every cell around the globe to receive mail every day.
Today Flikshop has more than 165,000 users who have sent over 550,000 postcards to people in more than 2,700 correctional facilities in the United States.
The Rev. Sylvia Bullock
KEEPING FAMILIES CONNECTED
Marcus, who is now 38, had been focused on growing the business and finding new partnerships. Then the coronavirus hit. With most of the world—including prison visits—coming to a screeching halt, Marcus has shifted his focus.
"This time is an interesting time," he says, "because I'm not as concerned about … growing the company. Right now, it's really about trying to figure out how to support [families who have incarcerated loved ones]. We've always been thinking about that, but now more than ever, [we're] like all right, Can we [make our service] free? How are we able to do that?"
To help make it possible, Flikshop launched Flikshop Angels, an easy way for community members to purchase Flikshop credits that are given away to families who suffer from prison visiting room closures. So far, Flikshop Angels have purchased more than 7,800 Flikshop credits for families with an incarcerated loved one. Marcus hopes to see that number soar in the days ahead.
"We have this 100,000 Families Connected campaign that we've launched, and we're not going to stop until we connect 100,000 families [with their incarcerated loves ones] during the pandemic," says Marcus. The new partnership with Prison Fellowship, supported by Stand Together, is helping to make connections possible by providing free credits to families to reach out to incarcerated loved ones during this challenging time.
STRENGTHENING IN-PRISON FAITH COMMUNIITIES
Flikshop also has been used by Prison Fellowship Academy® staff members to keep Academy communities connected during this pandemic. Paul Rogers is an Academy volunteer at the Estes Unit in Venus, Texas. After the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) closed its facilities to outside visitors, Paul and two fellow volunteers, Brett Contreras and Brad Urschel, knew they needed a way to stay in contact with the Academy participants.
The night before facilities were closed, the Academy staff was able to hold class in person. Paul copied down the incarcerated men's identification numbers. Since then, they have sent the men Flikshop messages. "I want to keep the relationships going and prove to these guys that I really do care about them," says Paul.
The prisoners at the Sanders "Sandy" Estes Unit are writing back. One person wrote to Paul,
"It was such a blessed encouragement to receive your letter. ... It feels good to have a tangible expression of God's love and provision. You bring hope in here. Thank you for that."
Marcus wants to help reinvent reentry in this country. About 95% of prisoners will one day be released back into our communities. That adds up to about 600,000 people every year. Some two-thirds of those will return to prison within just a few years of being released.
Marcus believes that's due, in part, to how disconnected incarcerated people are from the world they will re-enter. The current public health crisis has only highlighted the disconnectedness.
"Imagine coming home from prison and learning that [video conferencing] is the new way of communicating with the world and the workforce," Marcus says. "That would be so ridiculously demoralizing, to know that you have no idea how to navigate ... this. But if we're being intentional about sending these bite-sized pieces of information into these facilities well before these men and women are coming home, then we're adequately preparing them for at least this new world that we're going to be introducing them to."
Beyond being disconnected, returning citizens are often underprepared for reentry. "We aren't focused on preparing our men and women that are coming home from prison to be able to face the world, and so [Flikshop is] doing it in a very interesting and scalable way with our technology," says Marcus. "We can reduce recidivism, but it's going to take leadership of people that have been through it, that have done it successfully, for us to actually see it come into fruition."
ABOUT STAND TOGETHER
Stand Together empowers people dedicated to helping others improve their lives. Their philanthropic community tackles some of the biggest challenges of our times, including reforming the nation's criminal justice system, strengthening K-12 education, helping neighbors beat poverty and addiction, empowering everyone to find fulfilling work, and more. Click here to see how you can get engaged and help discover innovative ways to solve some of society's biggest problems.
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