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Former Prisoners Rethink Criminal Justice Through Entrepreneurship And Civic Technology

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“Reentry has to begin the moment you’re sentenced to prison. You’ve got to start planning to come home.”

That’s the motif of Teresa Hodge, who co-founded Mission: Launch in 2012 with her daughter, Laurin. The Hodges never imagined prison in their future, but when Teresa began serving an 87-month sentence in a West Virginia facility, they quickly discovered that “people don’t go to prison, families do.”

Teresa considers herself one of the lucky ones. While most incarcerated women must submit to restless boredom, Teresa’s time in prison was framed by her white-collar background. Friends and family would send her books on entrepreneurship, or business plans to review, keeping her sharp despite the dour environment.

Nevertheless, Teresa internalized inmate narratives of crime cycles and inescapable poverty. She detected it in almost every story — a hunger for new opportunities.

She saw civic technology as the best platform to improve social outcomes for the marginalized. “Technology was changing and we were being left behind. I knew I was going to have to come home and integrate technology into my life… in order to play catch up.”

For decades, the American (in)justice system has lagged in adopting reforms. The Hodges decided that making a tangible impact required pioneering outside of conventional public policy work. As former manager of the makerspace Affinity Lab, Laurin Hodge knew the power of innovative collaboration to create pathways to self-sufficiency.

The mother/daughter team did the unprecedented, creating a new frontier of bridging criminal justice with civic technology. The Hodges began connecting the diverse criminal justice stakeholders. Their nonprofit now designs opportunities for a “community of coders, lawyers, former prisoners, and advocates to come together to create new ways to rethink criminal justice.”

These unique business leaders prove that our incarcerated can become contributing members of society.

“Mission: Launch is an anchor,” says the younger Hodge. “A backbone to service providers who are helping people. We’re at the intersection of civic engagement and civic technology to make reentry more productive and efficient.”

They’ve proved successful so far. Mission: Launch’s demo days and hackathons have created several applications, from “Fair Chance Employment,” which enables governments to enforce fair-hiring legislation for those with convictions to “Clean Slate DC,” which guides users through the process of sealing criminal records. Their startup accelerator for the formerly incarcerated even won a $50,000 cash prize from the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA).

“Inclusive entrepreneurship has always been a part of our plan,” affirms Teresa of Mission: Launch’s accelerator. “700,000 people return from prison each year, yet many cannot get jobs. Sixty-five percent reoffend. We must expand the idea of entrepreneurship to these individuals as well… We’ve got an opportunity, a chance, to teach skills and to build software.”

The Hodges are creatively transforming reentry, establishing a niche community of self-starters and social entrepreneurs. They find inspiration in returning citizens like Marcus Bullock. At the age of 15, Bullock was convicted of a few crimes that compounded into eight years behind bars.

He and Teresa were both motivated by their families to spearhead something revolutionary. It was the sustained connection to home that inspired Bullock to shirk his criminal background and found Flikshop.

“When I heard my name — telling me that someone, my family, my friends, had sent me mail — it was like winning the lottery,” Bullock says of his time in prison. “When I got out, I too was sending pictures and letters to those guys on the inside. These were the people I’d grown up with when I was a teenager. They were my friends.”

Research over decades has found that inmates who stay in contact with their families have lower rates of recidivism. But when Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have become the bona fide mode of communication, people aren’t as familiar with sending written letters and printed photos.

“They were missing the little things and the huge milestones… I knew there had to be a better way to keep them in touch with their communities.”

Inmates who stay in contact with their families have lower rates of recidivism.

In a Maryland prison, Bullock received his GED and took college courses in business and computer science. This educational grounding, alongside grit and passion, helped him create an application that converts smartphone photos and messages into postcards sent directly to more than 2,000 correctional and juvenile justice facilities across the United States.

“Mail helps inmates stay integrated with what’s going on at home. It makes the return easier, and helps the community prepare for them as well.”

Now 30 years old, Bullock has grown Flikshop from a simple card company to offering professional mentorship. He’s in awe of the ex-offenders who enter into the Flikshop School of Business.

“They’ve got this amazing courage and faith and drive. They want to give back,” Bullock asserts with pride. “They’re even coming up with ideas that go beyond criminal justice — like creating Flikshop for military families who deal with similar communication and reentry problems.”

Out in Las Vegas, Frederick Hutson confirms that justice innovations have spread nationwide. He’s the founder of Pigeon.ly, a technology company with products supported by an inmate API that searches millions of inmate criterion to locate individuals across county, state and federal correctional facilities.

In 2007, Hutson was sentenced to 51 months in prison for his profitable marijuana operations. He channeled that business acumen into building software like FotoPigeon, a comparable photo-sharing service to Flikshop. He’s also produced TelePigeon, which works with Internet phone-service providers to give families phone numbers that are local to where their relations are incarcerated, saving long-distance call fees.

“We are different, because we don’t look like the typical technology company,” said Hutson in an interview last year with CNN Money. “[We have a] unique understanding of problems in this demographic that other people don’t understand. … That’s really our stone of strength.”

Pigeon.ly has saved families more than 7 million dollars since January 2014. According to CrunchBase, Pigeon.ly has raised $3 million in five seed rounds as of May 2015.

Speaking to him recently, Hutson was candid about his apprehension in becoming an entrepreneur.

“I was nervous at the beginning of bringing in my personal narrative… but [I was told by my mentors] that the same thing that I was concerned with in terms of my background was what made me credible to investors. They said you are the person to destruct this space. That’s what your edge is… You know the problems in this market.”

Being a black entrepreneur with a nebulous past can pose startling challenges.

Telling his story now plays a fundamental role in how Hutson pitches. His meetings have become less about Pigeon.ly’s business model; he spends more time educating investors about the needs of families with incarcerated loved ones.

“[Investors] stop me and say ‘Whoa, wait a second. This is a problem?’ They have no concept of how expensive calls are. They don’t realize that receiving photos and phone calls are a big deal when you’re in prison.”

For Hutson and Bullock, being a black entrepreneur with a nebulous past can pose startling challenges. Despite developing Pigeon.ly in the NewMe accelerator, a Silicon Valley program for underrepresented minorities, Hutson was told by founder Angela Benton that some investors would never understand his business.

“She told me, look some people are not going to vibe with you and they’re not going to be able to get on board with what you’re doing — there’s going to be a block because you’ve been in prison and you don’t look like the typical person they invest in,” he recounted to Forbes in 2014.

Flikshop experienced the very same difficulties in finding initial support; Bullock ended up funding his nascent company out-of-pocket. Mission: Launch, on the other hand, has received most of its support from grants and prize money.

“Of course funding is still an issue,” says Teresa Hodge as her daughter nods in agreement. “.06 percent of philanthropic dollars go to reentry work.”

“But now that public opinion is shifting [on criminal justice], there are more opportunities to showcase Mission: Launch and expand what we do,” Laurin adds.

In early August, Mission: Launch and Pigeon.ly were recognized at the White House’s inaugural Demo Day, where President Obama championed American creativity and trailblazing minority startups.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem has become more receptive to unconventional thinkers. The Hodges, Bullock and Hutson have carved unique platforms to make reentry more fruitful — but there’s something much greater at play.

Certainly, other technology initiatives are improving criminal justice practices. Corrisoft’s discreet ankle bracelet, an alternative for indigent New York juveniles, offers on-call service between wearers and officers. By texting their central number, Frontline SMS responds with contact information for the nearest legal aid office.

Code For America has collaborated with court houses on mobile applications that send fine payment options, court alerts and digital documents to those awaiting trial. A small but thriving community is tailoring solutions across the law and order continuum.

But truly special praise is reserved for returning citizens reinvesting in the cumbersome justice system. People like the Hodges, Bullock and Hutson are disrupting the reform space with ideas that are more apropos to the 21st century.

Free from political red tape, their projects expose the tools that break barriers and elevate individuals trapped in second-class citizenry. These unique business leaders prove that our incarcerated can become contributing members of society.

Leading by example, they’re opening new doors in entrepreneurship and technology for ex-offenders that once seemed unattainable.

“I was a young black kid talking about launching a tech company. No one took me seriously,” reflects Bullock. “Today, I’ve seen the amazing work of the formerly incarcerated. I know how important entrepreneurship can be… And I want to share that with every current prisoner and every returning citizen.”

 

Featured Image: keantian/Shutterstock