Our justice system is broken: The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world, in part because other countries do not use prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime.
This Black History Month, Breaking the Bias will be highlighting the change agents who are building career paths for the formerly incarcerated, or who are creating alternatives to incarceration, as the U.S. incarcerates Black people at a nearly five times higher rate than white people.
In this conversation, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal sat down with entrepreneur and CEO of Flikshop, Marcus Bullock, and his mother, Reverend Dr. Sylvia Bullock. They share how Marcus’ personal story of being incarcerated at just 15 years old in an adult prison reflects larger systemic issues related to our justice system, and how daily letters sent to him by his mother paved the way for him to launch Flikshop, an app that connects family members to their incarcerated loved ones.
Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for some key takeaways.
On Using Technology to Reduce Recidivism…
Rev. Dr. Sylvia Bullock, Marcus’ mother, did not want Marcus to ever lose sight of the outside world as a teenager in prison. To stay connected with her son and keep him connected to her during his eight years of being incarcerated, she wrote him letters and sent photos daily.
Marcus was inspired by his mother’s love, and upon re-entry, wanted to create technology to help other families stay connected to incarcerated loved ones. This led him to launch Flikshop, an app and website that allows people to take a photo, add text and send a postcard for just 99 cents that gets shipped to people in jails and prisons around the country. (The average cost of a prison phone call is nearly $6 for 15 minutes.)
“We knew when we were starting this tech company, we wanted to be able to solve a problem,” says Marcus. “The bigger problem that we wanted to solve—in addition to connecting families—was the ability to erase stigma for the people that are sitting in those prison cells, and showing what the possibilities were after prison. And also what the power of love and empathy can do, like what my mom did for me when I was sitting there many years ago.”
On The Power of Communication To Build Community And Opportunity…
Access to the Internet is vital for learning about the world and for acquiring new skills in a digitally-connected world. When Marcus went into prison, the Internet didn’t yet exist. When he came out, Google integrated into everyday life.
“We talk about the lack of Internet in prison,” says Marcus. “For the life of me, I can’t understand why we can’t put barriers on or restrictions on some of the sites that folks can’t access so that it will become less of a security risk for facilities, and allow for folks to be able to have access to some of the same learning opportunities via the Internet that you and I share every day. That’s how we all grow… I built Flikshop on Googling YouTube, so I can only imagine what the men and the women that are sitting in those cells will be able to do well before they come home if they had access to some of the same tools that you and I do.”
On The Larger Systemic Issues Related To Our Justice System…
The U.S. spends over $80 billion dollars on incarceration every year, and Blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 10 times greater than that of whites, despite the fact that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates, according to the ACLU.
“Folks can begin to educate themselves around how the background of imprisonment or corrections came as a result of slavery, and how we wanted to figure out ways to perpetuate this system of keeping Black bodies inside of these cells,” says Marcus. “It’s a punishment tool that, in a way, allows folks to be able to leverage these Black bodies in profitable ways.” Marcus says required reading is the 1619 Project and books covering the Jim Crow Era.
On Pathways to Employment for People Impacted By Incarceration…
Flikshop is helping prepare those impacted by incarceration for pathways for advancement because digital skills are essential in today’s job market.
“[Formerly incarcerated people] are trying to figure out how to participate inside of this new technological boom, and also how to be able to compete with some of the other people that are coming out of some of the best schools and colleges around the country that are applying for the same jobs [they are] applying for,” says Marcus. “So how do we help prepare some of these women and men when they come home from prison to be able to compete inside of this new digital landscape?”
Marcus’s solution was to launch FlikShops School of Business, a program that teaches returning citizens life skills and entrepreneurship via computer coding and software development. Collaboration is also key: Flikshop has partnered with Google to offer digital skills and training to people impacted by incarceration.
Career skills are of course essential for advancement. Just as important may be one’s networks, which are often a challenge for many people who are coming out of prison. “We all understand the power of this kind of social capital that we have inside of our community, but we forget that there’s a community of marginalized folks who may not so much have that,” says Marcus. “ I want to be able to shift that conversation so that we are more welcoming and thoughtful about what we’re building for the next generation of leaders that are coming out of these cells.”
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