“I’m a former inmate who became a tech CEO,” said Marcus Bullock, who prefers the term “returning citizens,” for the formerly incarcerated for whom for his app Flikshop makes it possible to receive picture postcards from friends and family directly.
After being sentenced to eight years in an adult, maximum-security prison at the very un-adult age of 15 for six years, his mother’s insistence on both writing letters and sending pictures saved his life and inspired Flikshop.
Flikshop allows people to send messages and pictures to those who are incarcerated for 99 cents apiece. The messages are printed out as picture postcards and mailed to inmates at 2,200 prisons and jails around the country.
The app has attracted a number of celebrity investors, including John Legend and Baron Davis.
Bullock has also launched the Flikshop School of Business, an initiative that provides entrepreneurial and life skills essential for a return to a society that demands a former inmate find employment, but refuses to grant it for being a former inmate.
Prioritizing reentry well before release is the key to Bullock’s masterplan to realign America’s fractured criminal justice system.” I want to change the entire world’s perception of formerly incarcerated people,” he says, “and be instrumental in creating an infrastructure specifically outfitted to help them successfully transition back into society.”
We recently sat down with Bullock to discuss his phenomenal business success, but more importantly, how everyone can help successful reentry become the norm and make recidivism the exception.
What is the Flikshop mission?
Bullock: Our goal is to create a natural pathway for communication for them back to the real world before they come home. Flikshop will partner with these organizations and these agencies to ensure that every person that’s coming home from prison what to do for success.
What are the day one needs of a returning citizen?
Bullock: The expectation is for these men and women that have been behind bars for weeks, months, years, and some even decades to come home and be successful in a brand-new world unrecognizable to them. Returning Citizens need three things: identification, employment, and housing immediately. Giving someone a manual is not going to do that on an on a broader scale.
Why don’t returning citizens talk about their prison experience post-release?
Bullock: It’s taboo. My uncle, my brother, and my best friend’s uncle all came home from prison. There is no motivation or desire to share what they look at as swapping the same experiences around. The healing begins when we talk about how the brutality of the prison existence made us feel. We are then sharing the trauma behind the experience, which, over time, could heal the injury.
Did you talk about your prison experience with your family?
Bullock: Neither my mom nor my grandmother wanted me to talk about going to prison. It drives them crazy. It was difficult for my wife to hear me say, “My last grade completed was ninth grade. I would walk on stages and say, “You know that the highest level of education was the ninth grade.” Everyone’s jaws would drop. “Surely, not you, Marcus,” I would hear. The shame is attached and bottled up.
Returning citizens are often forced to accept disruptions in their lives to avoid recidivism. Did you?
Bullock: I couldn’t drive the same way home from work for a week straight. I can’t eat at a particular restaurant where I frequented before. I won’t even allow people to know what school my children attend. When you return home from prison, you tend to take two-minute showers.
It’s swift. You hurry up. And you get out of the water. You haven’t had the luxury of standing in the shower and having water run down your back for years. You’re programmed to get up, get in the shower, wash your body, get out, hurry up and get dressed.
Now, you’re like, ‘Wait, what am I supposed to do again?’ Those are the nuances of reentry for me.
At what point should the reentry process begin?
Bullock: The reentry process should start well before someone comes home from prison. I’m challenging myself with Flikshop to be thoughtful around how we even build the technology to be able to make sure that we contribute to the solution for recidivism. 90 percent of our users are family and friends sending to incarcerated loved ones.
But we also establish strategic partnerships with businesses and organizations, such as Slack and Koch Industries, both of which espouse fair chance hiring and offer employment to Returning Citizens regardless of their criminal record.
It’s not just the problem of the parole board or the probation committee. It’s the entire community. This a problem for humanity. Everyone needs to play a part in solving it.