When Marcus Bullock was 15 years old, he began serving an eight-year sentence in an adult, maximum-security prison for armed carjacking. For the first few years, he thought he could tough it out on his own. He comforted himself with a dream of an early release.
But when that didn’t happen — and when he realized how long other men had been incarcerated, and how often some of them had been released, only to return — he spiraled into depression.
That’s when, Marcus says, his mother saved him with a simple promise: She told him she would send him a message — a note, a photo, or a few words of encouragement — every day for the rest of his sentence. The daily messages that soon began to arrive helped Marcus replace his depression with direction.
That direction led Marcus to create Flikshop, a mobile app that allows users to send postcards to their loved ones in prison with just a few taps of a smartphone screen. The messages, which can be short notes or photos or a combination of images and text, cost 99 cents each. And, now, under a recently announced partnership with Flikshop and Prison Fellowship, Stand Together will fund 20,000 postcards to be sent to incarcerated loved ones.
Marcus says the connection to the outside world that Flikshop postcards can provide is essential to an incarcerated individual’s preparation for life after release. The importance of that connection — to a support network of loved ones and friends outside the prison — was entirely ignored when he was sent to prison. “Prison was designed for punitive punishment.” he says. “That was it. It was punishment. It was designed to have people go in, lock them up, throw away the key.”
With daily letters, Marcus’s mom helped him realize how much he could contribute to society once he was released. Now, he’s determined to do the same for incarcerated individuals who — as he once was — are asked to seamlessly assimilate back into normal life after years in prison, without being offered a chance to develop the proper tools and resources to do so.
An app like Flikshop, Marcus says, is just one step toward changing that.
“Now we’re having deeper conversations around the possibilities of what reform can look like,” he says, “and what the possibilities are if you do stay in contact with someone and build those levels of support during and after prison.”
The threat of recidivism has been a focus for Marcus for well over a decade. When he was released in 2004, employers refused to hire him because of his conviction. He eventually started his own construction contracting business, and as it grew, he made it a point to offer jobs to those coming out of prison.
He wanted to do more. He remembered the messages from his mom. He remembered his friends, some of whom were still in prison.
“But there wasn’t a tool,” he says, “a technology that allowed us to be able to easily text somebody in prison.”
For decades, studies have shown that incarcerated individuals who maintain a connection to family during their prison sentence are less likely to return to jail after their release. But it’s difficult for them to stay connected. There’s no social media for the prison population. Phone calls are expensive. It’s isolating, and difficult to follow the world outside the prison boundaries.
So Marcus built Flikshop. Since its launch in 2012, the app has delivered more than 500,000 postcards to prisoners in nearly 3,000 institutions across all 50 states. And while the focus remains on fostering connections between prisoners and their loved ones, Marcus hopes Flikshop will soon be connecting prisoners to businesses, corporations and other organizations that can help them once they’re released. Employees from Apple and Slack have used Flikshop to connect with prisoners, and Marcus hopes to expand that effort to other businesses. Through these efforts, Marcus hopes to help prepare incarcerated populations for life after release and to provide useful tools and connections for them when they return to life outside.
With Flikshop, Marcus says, what was once a flyer tacked to a prison bulletin board that individuals walked past on their way to the dining hall can now be a targeted message delivered to thousands of inmates.
The broader message that Marcus hopes Flikshop is able to deliver to the prison population: “There are millions of businesses that want to hire you. There are millions of organizations that support you. There are tons of churches and ministries that want to give you suits and gift cards for Lyft and Uber so that you can get the job interviews.”
Since research shows that 95 percent of the prison population will one day be released, the message is an important one.
And Flikshop provides an important and innovative means of communication, delivering to inmates precisely what Marcus’ mom once sent to him, those two things he never knew he needed until he needed them: love — from family and friends offering incarcerated individuals glimpses of a life possible on the outside — and support — from organizations and institutions dedicated to preparing them for that life.
Photo description: Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock displays a sample Flikshop postcard.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Flikshop