Marcus Bullock spent his most formative years in a prison.
He was 15 when he was convicted and served eight years — a shockingly common experience. Of the millions of people incarcerated in the United States, about 70,000 of them are juveniles.
Marcus, though, was determined to become more than just a statistic.
Bullock in 2015. Photo by J. Pratt Jr. via Marcus Bullock, used with permission.
Luckily, he had a family support system that kept in constant touch. He learned firsthand the value of knowing that people are there for you, even when you're in prison.
His mother, in particular, made it a point to send him a steady stream of letters and pictures while he was incarcerated. "She would just send me tons and tons of mail," Marcus explains. "So it created this sense of accountability."
Now Bullock is 35 and the founder and CEO of Flikshop; an app that helps prisoners keep in touch with their families.
Photo by J. Pratt Jr. via Marcus Bullock, used with permission.
After having a hard time finding a job after his release — a ubiquitous experience among former inmates — he started his own painting and construction business that quickly became successful.
His friends and cellmates back in prison wanted to know more about what he was up to and how he found success, but the only way to reach them was through traditional letters.
"My life was just moving too fast to sit down and write a letter when there’s such a thing as Facebook," Marcus says.
The problem is, there was no such thing as a convenient social media platform for prisoners. So, he left his construction business to build one.
Flikshop lets you take a picture on your phone, add text, and turn it into a 99-cent postcard for your friend or loved one in prison.
It's an innovation that has the potential to help millions of families stay in contact with their incarcerated loved ones. And while a postcard may seem like a small gesture, Marcus knows more than most how meaningful it can be.
"For all the things that kind of beat me down when I was [in prison], that mail-call lifted me back up," he says.
Marcus and his mother during his time in prison. Photo via Marcus Bullock, used with permission.
The app quickly found success and is helping families all over the U.S. find a sense of normalcy through communication.
"They want to keep in contact and send those in-the-moment Instagram selfies or say 'this is what we're eating for dinner' to their husbands, brothers, cousins, uncles, or children in these facilities," Marcus says.
For Marcus, Flikshop is more than just a communication tool; it's a way of fostering relationships with a population that is too often ignored and forgotten.
"You probably haven’t seen your first cousin in weeks," Marcus says. "But because you see them on Facebook, you feel close to them. The reality is — that cousin in prison? — You forgot he existed until someone brought him up in a conversation at Christmastime."
It's that difference, Marcus notes, that can lead to prisoners feeling like they're not even a part of their own family anymore once they come home.
Until now, communicating with an inmate involved making a special visitation trip or taking an expensive collect call. If you can't afford to do so on a regular basis, the disconnect grows fast.
Upon release, that distance from life outside, along with dim career prospects, contributes to the United State's high recidivism rate. Simply sending some photos, Marcus explains, is a huge step toward reversing the vicious cycle. "It will keep your engagement going which will help strengthen that relationship, which will inherently help lower incarceration. Thats what we want our technology to do."
Marcus has never lost sight of how important it was for him to stay in touch with his family.
Photo via Marcus Bullock, used with permission.
It's what helped him stay focused, uplifted, and motivated to make a better life for himself once he was released. More importantly though, it's what helped him remember that he was more than just a statistic. He's a human being with dreams, hopes, and a mother that loves him and believes in him.
"The entire time I was [in prison]," Marcus explains, "I was ready to come home and prove to my mom that the love she showed me during those pivotal times wasn’t in vain."