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Innovation Agents

How An Ex-Inmate’s Startup Is Improving Prisoners' Lives

With Pigeonly, Frederick Hutson is using technology to keep convicts connected to friends and family—and maybe turn their lives around.

How An Ex-Inmate’s Startup Is Improving Prisoners' Lives
[Photos: courtesy of Pigeonly]

Entrepreneurs often tap personal experience for startup ideas. In Frederick Hutson’s case, that experience was incarceration. "I just saw so many inefficiencies when I was in prison," he says. "The way the system worked was archaic. There was obviously a problem. I knew technology had advanced far ahead on the outside, but no one has built anything to address it."

Frederick Hutson

The result is Pigeonly, a platform that provides cost-saving services for inmates. In essence, Pigeonly is a suite of features that helps families stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones. For now, it includes Fotopigeon, which allows inmates to receive hard-copy photographs printed from a cellphone, computer, or tablet, and Telepigeon, which gives inmates local access numbers they can use to call loved ones instead of making expensive long-distance calls. Underlying these services is a proprietary 50-state prisoner database that helps families locate prisoners instead of combing through individual state databases.

Those services might seem modest by the standards of Silicon Valley, but for prisoners, they can make a huge difference. ""I always believed it was a real business because I experienced it," says Hutson. "At the time, it was obvious to me that people would pay a couple of bucks to receive photos and place phone calls for cheaper."

He was right. Pigeonly now has a staff of 13 people headquartered in Las Vegas, where it’s part of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. The company has also raised $2 million in seed money. Fotopigeon has sent more than 90,000 photos for 11,000 customers at $0.50 per image, and more than 30,000 customers have used Telepigeon (plans start at $5 a month). The company estimates that families using Pigeonly’s products have saved more than $1.4 million as of September 2014. Hutson doesn’t plan to stop there; he envisions other related services growing out of the same platform, which will serve the prison population in banking, job placement, and even post-release housing. He's also hoping to expand beyond the prison community and extend these services to other people who might find them useful.

These ideas come from the real-life struggles Hutson witnessed (and experienced) when he himself was a prisoner. After being sentenced to 51 months for smuggling marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico via overnight delivery services, the then 24-year-old Hutson started serving his sentence in October 2007. During the four years he spent behind bars, he saw how difficult it was for families to stay in touch with their convicted loved ones. He himself was moved to eight different prisons, leaving his family and friends to figure out the logistics of staying in touch every time.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Hutson is a natural entrepreneur who honed his skills in Petersburg, Florida, where his family relocated when he was 14. He launched and sold his first business—a window tinting service for cars, houses, and commercial buildings—at the age of 19, while on active duty in the Air Force. After receiving an honorable discharge in 2006, Hutson made a living selling cell-phone accessories. But things started to go wrong when he got involved in a friend’s drug business.

At first, the idea was to just earn enough money to start building a legitimate business. But as the money rolled in, he lost sight of that original plan. "I looked up years into it to find that I had built a lifestyle I had to support," he says. "And to support it, I had to continue doing what I was doing, like a vicious cycle. It’s probably one of the most selfish things I’ve done. I did it for financial reasons, but I wasn’t thinking about the individuals, the communities that I was affecting. I regret the pain I caused my friends and family, but I don’t regret the person I’ve become because of it. Now, I have the discipline not to do something like that."

Hutson got caught after a driver for one of the courier services Hutson was using gave him up. He was arrested in a joint operation by the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local Las Vegas and Tampa police on October 2007, and 10 months later, he was convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 1,000 kilograms, or 2,200 pounds, of marijuana.

After serving his sentence, Hutson was released to a halfway house in March 2012, and he immediately began building Pigeonly. By then, he had teamed up with a friend from the Air Force named Alfonzo Brooks to start working on the company. In a quirk of the system, Brooks had to "hire" Hutson so he could leave the halfway house for 12-hour shifts from Monday to Saturday. During that period, Hutson would sit in an office, day in and day out, reaching out to freelancers and figuring out how to make the idea in his head real.

They launched Pigeonly with initial funds gathered from Brooks’ own savings and from friends and believers. "It was a lot of hustling from the beginning, figuring out how to do things low-cost," he says. "We got lots of stuff for free or with deferred payment." An inmate friend helped create early graphics and web design for free. They hired someone from freelancer.com to help build out the first Fotopigeon specs.

More than just a business, Hutson sees Pigeonly as a way of reducing recidivism. By making it easier to stay connected to family and loved ones, Pigeonly is, Hutson hopes, encouraging former inmates to stay on the straight and narrow. It’s an idea that’s been backed up by decades of research.

"Isolation is the worst thing that can happen to an inmate," says Huston, "The real question is, ‘What kind of person do you want to release’? The one who’s lost touch with everyone they know and whose chance of re-offending is over 50%? Or one who’s connected with people who can help support their re-entry into society?"

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