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The creator of this social media app wants prisoners to stay connected to their families — The Undefeated

The creator of this social media app wants prisoners to stay connected to their families — The Undefeated

As a youngster, Marcus Bullock had rather a lot going for him. He was raised in church by a doting mom. He was tall and durable, and a standout on the basketball courts in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He was a excessive achiever within the classroom.

But, he spun uncontrolled. He smoked weed, bought crack, stole and torched automobiles and carried a gun. At 15, he was arrested for participating in a carjacking and sentenced to eight years in an grownup jail.

Now 37, Bullock has undergone a unprecedented transformation from gun-toting teenage drug supplier to profitable portray and development contractor and tech entrepreneur. The change was made attainable, he says, by probably the most bizarre of issues: frequent letters from his mom. That straightforward concept is on the coronary heart of an app Bullock helped create to interrupt the cycle of incarceration and rearrest that ensnares two-thirds of individuals launched from jail.

The app, referred to as Flikshop, is the closest factor that the nation’s 2.1 million inmates should a social media platform. And it’s catching the attention of some superstar buyers, together with recording artist John Legend and former NBA star Baron Davis. Flikshop permits individuals to ship messages and footage to those that are incarcerated for 99 cents apiece. The messages are printed out as image postcards and mailed to inmates at 2,200 prisons and jails across the nation.

“If you end up in jail, getting mail is like hitting the lottery,” Bullock stated. “It’s your connection to the surface world.”

For a lot of inmates, that reference to family members is troublesome to take care of. Family and friends members who may ship tons of of texts in every week, or publish dozens of pictures on Instagram, are sometimes much less more likely to write letters. And telephone requires prisoners and their households could be a rip-off that prices greater than $1 a minute.

Bullock sees Flikshop as not only a strategy to earn cash however as a key a part of the trouble to shrink the nation’s jail inhabitants. He travels the nation giving talks about his personal journey from jail to the world of enterprise, and pitching potential buyers. The app was launched in 2012, and his current efforts to draw capital to scale it up have generated vital curiosity.

Davis, a former NBA All-Star, turned an investor final yr after listening to Bullock converse on a panel. In addition to his fairness stake, he additionally bought hundreds of Flikshop credit to provide to people who find themselves financially struggling. And he’s working to deliver different former athletes on board.

“The truth that his firm was easy and solves an issue was interesting,” Davis stated. “The toughest factor for individuals to do whereas in jail is to obtain constructive communication, and this app helps remedy that drawback in an natural style.”

Others have been equally impressed. Flikshop gained a $50,000 grant from Unlocked Futures, a enterprise accelerator affiliated with Legend, a Grammy-winning artist who can also be an advocate for jail reform. Unlocked Futures invests in social entrepreneurs who’ve been impacted by the felony justice system, and Bullock was amongst eight grantees chosen from a whole lot of candidates.

Flikshop was additionally chosen from amongst hundreds of candidates for a $120,000 funding from Techstars, which offers grants and consulting providers for promising startups. One concept to assist Flikshop develop is to succeed in out to nonprofits that work with residents coming back from jail to allow them to use it to publicize their providers or ship messages of help to inmates. One other concept to develop the corporate is to increase the Flikshop mannequin to individuals who need to ship vacation greetings, birthday needs or different missives to people who find themselves in primary coaching within the army providers.

The Marketing campaign for Youth Justice, which advocates towards prosecuting and incarcerating juvenile offenders as adults, makes use of Flikshop to remain in contact with greater than 400 individuals who have been despatched to grownup prisons whereas they have been nonetheless youngsters.

“It’s a fantastic service,” stated Marcy Mistrett, the group’s CEO. “It’s a essential, essential approach for people who find themselves incarcerated to remain related. Connection to household and constructive social networks is the only most essential indicator of profitable re-entry into society when individuals are launched from jail.”

Making a method for prisoners to take care of a connection to the surface world will help inmates resist the hopelessness that so typically prevails in jail, Bullock says. For proof, he turns to his personal expertise.

When Bullock was arrested in 1996, he was in denial. Prosecutors and judges warned that he might face an extended jail time period after he was arrested with a good friend for pulling a gun on a person and taking his automotive within the parking zone of a Northern Virginia shopping center. However as an alternative of taking duty for his crime and pondering the prospect of spending years in jail, Bullock says, he was largely involved about getting again to his highschool junior varsity basketball staff. He was satisfied that he had school potential as a capturing guard, and he says he at first seen his arrest as little greater than a quick detour from the street to a brilliant future.

“That claims lots about my considering at 15 and 16 years of age,” Bullock stated.

Courtesy of Marcus Bullock

Actuality sank in as soon as a decide hit him with an eight-year sentence. Earlier than lengthy, Bullock went the best way of many inmates. He was brooding and indignant. He resisted the principles, fought individuals who even checked out him the flawed method and stuffed magazines into the liner of his jacket to fend off the shanks of his enemies.

Bullock was drowning within the chaos, hopelessness and unforgiving tradition of jail. However he was saved by his mom’s willpower to remain in contact. “She did one thing that only a few individuals’s relations ever do in jail. She began writing me letters and sending me footage daily,” Bullock stated.

She wrote concerning the wallpaper in her workplace at work. She despatched him footage of automobiles she was considering of shopping for, or his room in the home she had saved sufficient to buy. She despatched footage of cheeseburgers, accompanied by exhaustive letters.

“She’d say, ‘Marcus, in the future you’ll take pleasure in cheeseburgers once you come residence from jail,’ ” he stated. All of it conveyed an unmistakable message, he stated: “You’ll not die in jail. I want you to know this. There’s life after this.”

His mom, the Rev. Sylvia Bullock, labored 37 years for the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration. She stated the letters have been remedy for her, too, and helped ease the ache of getting a son in jail.

Bullock had offered all the things she might for her son, whilst she labored full time whereas pursuing her bachelor’s diploma and later a grasp’s diploma in divinity. She took him to church a number of days every week. She had him be a part of the church choir, enrolled him in oratorical contests and cheered him on throughout his basketball video games.

His arrest and jail sentence left her surprised. “The shock of when all this occurred was a shock to me. He was dwelling one other life that I knew nothing about. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she stated.

Writing her son and going to go to him on weekends was a solution to cope. “I might simply sit at my pc at work and sort him letters, saying that is what occurred final night time. Or that is what’s going on in church,” she stated. “I might let him know if there have been any occasions happening. Typically it might be a paragraph. Different occasions it might be a whole letter. I simply needed to maintain him abreast of on a regular basis life.”

Ultimately, Bullock rediscovered his true self. He acquired a GED certificates in jail and began taking programs to study enterprise and pc software program. As soon as he was launched in 2004, he utilized for and was rejected for greater than 140 jobs earlier than he lastly landed one with a paint retailer.

Earlier than lengthy, he was promoted from retail clerk to roving gross sales consultant. After matching underemployed painters with individuals shopping for paint, he launched a portray firm. Ultimately, he constructed that agency right into a contractor that gained work at Baltimore/Washington Worldwide Thurgood Marshall Airport whereas using a workforce composed principally of former inmates.

Bullock was making good cash, driving a BMW convertible and dwelling in a big condo — success he needed to share no less than not directly together with his pals nonetheless in jail. He would write them encouraging letters every so often. However he was typically too busy to remain in contact as a lot as he would have appreciated.

Flikshop Faculty of Enterprise teacher Anthony Belton (left) and Flikshop government assistant Ashlee Mercer (proper) take heed to founder Marcus Bullock (middle) throughout a gathering on the firm’s workplace in Washington, D.C.

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What if there was an app that may make reaching out extra handy? he thought. Flikshop turned the reply. He talked to businesspeople at casual meetups and met with app builders. Ultimately, he pulled collectively a group that made Flikshop a actuality.

“The primary query individuals would ask me once I advised them about my dream was: ‘Have you learnt how you can construct an app?’ ” Bullock stated. “I used to be like, ‘Man, we didn’t know tips on how to begin a portray enterprise or development firm once we began. However we’ve carried out it, and it got here out all proper.’ ”

Bullock envisions Flikshop enjoying a pivotal position in rehabilitating prisoners and altering how the general public views returning residents. A lot of the narrative surrounding the present state of the felony justice system is obvious incorrect, he famous. Most inmates usually are not past hope and rehabilitation, although lots of them dedicated violent crimes. To this present day, Bullock wonders whether or not the individual he robbed has post-traumatic stress from the carjacking.

Nonetheless, having inmates who made dangerous and even violent decisions keep in contact with individuals outdoors of jail would assist them extra simply make the adjustment to civilian life as soon as they’re launched, Bullock stated.

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Thus far, Flikshop is tapping only a tiny fraction of its potential market. However with its technical capabilities now honed and the power to ship playing cards to tons of of prisons, the corporate is poised for progress. Bullock estimates that Flikshop sends out 10,000 playing cards a month, a job that his mom oversees from the economic printer and pc hyperlink within the storage of her Washington, D.C.-area residence.

The agency is trying to associate with extra prisoner advocacy teams to pump up enterprise. In the meantime, Bullock is aiming pitches at athletes, entertainers and others involved with jail reform for an upcoming spherical of financing to assist Flikshop improve its advertising and manufacturing efforts. He is also working to scale up the Flikshop Faculty of Enterprise, which teaches primary enterprise expertise to inmates and other people coming back from jail. And he’s working to increase the Flikshop Angels program, which permits individuals to donate Flikshop playing cards to those that can’t afford them.

“I do know the potential we now have due to what I’ve been via,” Bullock stated. “I can personally keep in mind each night time at mail name behind these sweaty concrete partitions, hoping for my identify to be referred to as, in search of a bit of affection from anyone that remembered I existed.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior author at The Undefeated. He’s a local New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys reside music and theater.

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