Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anthony Belton was surrounded by violence—but no one imagined he would end up in prison. He was a student-athlete, graduating in the top 10% of his class. He wrote an essay that earned him an academic scholarship at a nearby university. But instead of following the path of education, Anthony landed a lucrative job at a credit company right out of high school—an example, Anthony says, of “the devil giving you what’s good to keep you from having what’s best.”
Before Anthony was 20 years old, he was making six figures and driving a brand-new car. Then budget cuts came around, and Anthony was laid off. Suddenly, his life was in a flat spin.
THE DRAW OF QUICK MONEY
Anthony’s single mom picked up the slack, taking on another job to cover his car insurance and loan. She struggled with epilepsy and other health issues, but she told him not to worry—that she didn’t mind taking care of him while he looked for work. Anthony received job offers, but none compared to the money he was making before, so he turned them all down.
One day, Anthony noticed that his mom was feeling unwell.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. At first, she wouldn’t tell him, but eventually she admitted it: She could no longer afford her prescriptions.
Anthony was filled with rage and fear. He turned to friends who knew how to make quick money on the streets and began a reckless, year-long crime spree. In 1991, at 19 years old, he was arrested and sentenced to 59 years in prison for robbery, use of a firearm, and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.
PRISON AS PREPARATION
Three months after Anthony was incarcerated, he became the father of a little girl.
“To be a dad actually changed the way I thought about life,” Anthony says. “It gave me something to fight for. It gave me something to believe in. For the first time, I had something in my life that I felt like was bigger than me, in terms of the love I had for my child.”
Anthony decided to view his prison sentence like the opportunity he had passed up: college.
“Every day, I wanted to learn something,” he says. “I wanted to keep my mind fresh.”
Anthony obtained a dictionary and began writing out a new word each morning, keeping it in his pocket to review throughout the day. He started memorizing scripture. And, entrepreneurial from a young age, Anthony taught himself how to write a business plan and a budget.
“I viewed my whole incarceration as an era of preparation,” Anthony says. “Every morning, I wanted to prepare myself. I would work out, I would pray, I would eat. Then I began to do things to build my mind, began to do things to train myself on how to set up a business.”
'For the first time, I had something in my life that I felt like was bigger than me, in terms of the love I had for my child.'
HITTING THE BOTTOM, COMING BACK UP
But despite his diligent preparation, Anthony felt powerless and frustrated by his inability to provide for his daughter. Every year, he came up for parole—and every year he was denied. After eight years behind bars, Anthony started selling marijuana and stolen food items from the kitchen so he could send more money to his daughter’s mom.
“I wanted so bad to be a significant factor in my child’s life,” he says.
Anthony was caught, and he ended up in solitary confinement for an entire year, threatened with additional prison time for his infractions. He couldn’t receive visitors or phone calls, and he could only shower twice a week.
The weather was hot, and Anthony’s tiny cell lacked air conditioning or fan. Anthony would wake up and use the sink to rinse his chest of the bugs that had drowned in the sweat pooling on his skin overnight. He felt himself slipping mentally, and he wished he could die, too.
Anthony fasted and prayed for three days, begging God for relief and guidance. On the third day, he clearly sensed God’s words to him: “No, this is not your final destination. This is not your end. We’re going to turn this thing around and get you back on track.”
From that moment on, Anthony started working out and reading every morning. He was determined to get back to his routine of keeping his mind sharp, and soon he was tearing through a book a day.
“God spoke a complete word of transformation and victory into my spirit,” Anthony says. “I’m thankful that God had mercy on me, even those adverse conditions, to rededicate my heart, mind, body, and soul to walk in the path of greatness He ordained for me.”
'I wanted so bad to be a significant factor in my child’s life.'
PROVIDING THROUGH ANGEL TREE
When Anthony heard about Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ from a pamphlet he received at a prison church service, it seemed too good to be true. Through local church volunteers, Angel Tree® provides a gift for children with an incarcerated parent at Christmastime. Anthony was skeptical. Would it just be a card or some candy?
When Anthony called his daughter’s mother after the gift had been delivered, he was surprised to hear that she was choked up. She thanked him profusely and later sent him a photo of their daughter with the gifts.
“At that point, I felt like a real dad,” Anthony recalls. “I felt like a real dad that was able to help be a healthy contributor to her life. And it strengthened that bond. It showed her that ‘although he’s away, he still loves me, he still cares about me, he still thinks about me, he still wants to be able to contribute in my life.’”
Experiencing that life-changing power of connection from behind bars planted a seed in Anthony that would one day grow into something he could never have imagined.
One day, Anthony met a man 10 years his junior named Marcus Bullock.
“He was a bright kid,” Anthony remembers. “You could see the intelligence when he talked. He was very articulate, but he was very wild.”
Anthony took Marcus under his wing. He convinced him to settle down, to walk the track on the prison yard and talk together, to use his mind by taking computer classes.
“The brotherhood formed over just really trying to embrace what was in front of us and use the resources to elevate ourselves to a level where we would be prepared. It never stopped from that point forward,” Anthony says.
Marcus was released a year before Anthony. When Anthony got out in 2005—his sentence reduced for good behavior—he immediately connected with Marcus. They both started construction companies, sometimes collaborating, always enjoying a little healthy competition. In 2012, Anthony and Marcus co-founded a brand-new company: an app called Flikshop.
PROVIDING HOPE THROUGH POSTCARDS
While incarcerated, Marcus was deeply depressed. His mother promised to send him a letter or picture every day for the remainder of his sentence—and she did. Marcus never forgot the power of that ongoing contact, just as Anthony never forgot the way staying connected with his daughter gave him purpose and hope.
Flikshop is an easy way for families and friends of incarcerated individuals to send personalized postcards to their loved ones right from their phone.
Marcus and Anthony were able to fund Flikshop for two years from their own business earnings without taking a salary. They had no idea how expensive it would be to run an app, but the grit they developed in prison helped them push through.
Today, Anthony serves as head instructor at the Flikshop School of Business, a program that teaches entrepreneurial skills like communication and strategy development. Flikshop School of Business partners with schools and nonprofits to mentor and train up-and-coming business owners. Anthony also goes into prisons to teach the program. He loves equipping incarcerated men and women to thrive on the outside and experience second chances through entrepreneurship.
GETTING THROUGH TO MAKE IT HOME
In 2020, Prison Fellowship® partnered with Flikshop and has given away thousands of gift cards to Angel Tree families. It’s a gift that blesses both the family and the incarcerated loved one. Flikshop was also used by Prison Fellowship Academy® staff members to keep Academy communities connected during the pandemic.
To Anthony, the partnership makes perfect sense.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re just like a piece of trash thrown out by the curb,” he says. “It means a lot for a person to feel believed in, to feel loved, to feel thought about … just feeling relevant. When you are able to connect [through Flikshop] or Angel Tree, it can get you through the day, it can get you through the week, it can get you through the year—and then you’re home.”