Former Inmate’s Tech Startup Serves Families Of The Incarcerated

September 18, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

Of the 2.3 million Americans currently confined to the U.S. prison system, most of them barely have access to phones or the internet. But former inmate Frederick Hutson thought up a way to give convicts and their families the ability to use internet-like services while he was serving time for a weed offense.

His website, Pigeon.ly, provides a variety of useful tools and communication devices to the families of inmates. Most revolutionary is FotoPigeon, which gives users the ability to search for loved ones through a database of photos that encompass all federal prisons. Since convicts are moved around frequently, it can be difficult for families to locate their imprisoned relatives. Previously, there was no country-wide database, and to locate someone it was necessary to search through each prison individually.

Pigeon.ly also allows people to send photos digitally, which the service will print out and ship to any prisoner for 50 cents. The packaging is guaranteed to get through prison mail rooms. Right now, 3,000 photos are shipped using this method every day. Meanwhile, TelePigeon helps people purchase a phone number in the local area where their family member is incarcerated, so they will be able talk while avoiding incurring long distance fees. Even if families can’t afford this service, Pigeon.ly gives them 20 free minutes a month. Hutson told CNN that this service has saved families $646,000 since January of this year alone. 

It was important to Hutson to make his project as user-friendly and simple as possible, as many relatives of people in prison use only mobile internet, or are not computer literate. He has relatively little funding for a startup, with $2 million raised and an undisclosed amount coming from a recent round of investing. In the near future, he plans to launch a new platform incorporating the search aspect of PhotoPigeon for those who just want to find their incarcerated family members. (Image: Pigeon.ly)