Can the tech industry be recruited to help end mass incarceration?
On Friday at SXSW Interactive, part of Austin’s nine-day SXSW music, film and technology conference, a panel of app developers and nonprofit founders took on the question, connecting lower recidivism rates with keeping incarcerated people in touch with family and friends.
“If you haven’t been in prison, You can’t understand how important mail calls are,” said panelist Marcus Bullock.
Bullock’s the CEO of FlikShop, an app that allows family and friends to inexpensively turn photos into postcards that are then automatically mailed to prison facilities.
At 15, Bullock said he was given an eight-year sentence for his involvement in a carjacking. He said that getting letters and postcards from loved ones was a crucial connection to the outside world and contributed to his successful re-entry.
Azzurra Crispino, an activist with the Austin group Prison Abolition and Prisoner Support, told the Texas Observer that FlikShop is a crucial tool in her activism.
“Writing a letter is a delicate matter sometimes,” she said. “There’s FlikShop for in-between. I’m not dead, here’s a redbud in the sun or a bird and and an ‘I’m thinking of you.’ There’s never an excuse not to send a postcard.”
Panelist Laurin Hodge said that “re-entry needs its own humanizing campaign like HIV/AIDS had.”
Along with her mother, Hodge founded Mission Launch, a nonprofit that matches “returning citizens” with mentors from the tech industry.
The Hodges have created software tools that help expunge criminal records and encourage employers to give returning citizens a fair chance at employment.
Other technological innovations aimed at keeping incarcerated people connected with folks back home don’t always provide such clear-cut benefits. With prisoners often moved hundreds or even thousands of miles from their homes, video conferencing software can be a way to maintain communication when in-person visitation is prohibitively expensive or time consuming.
But video visitation can still be too expensive for many incarcerated people, who have to pay for the visits out of their accounts. “Prisoners work for as little as 4 cents an hour, how do they afford 26 cents a minute video visitation?” Teresa Hodge said.
Prices vary widely from facility to facility. Securus, a major provider of video visitation, charges $7.99 for a 20 minute remote video conference at Bastrop County Jail. And some jails have ended in-person visitation entirely, leaving only “in-person” video conferencing facilities that put visitors behind a screen even when they physically travel to a facility.
Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that works to end for-profit prisons, has been fighting this policy at Austin’s Del Valle Jail.
Bob Libal, the group’s executive director, told the Observer that many video visitation contracts “were written in a way that was detrimental to loved ones being able to stay in communication with their incarcerated family members, particularly when it eliminated or incentivized people visiting from afar in order to make profit.”
After the nonprofit packed county budget hearings with concerned family members, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office agreed to reinstate physical in-person visitation by April.
For Libal, this highlights the double-edged sword of new prison technologies: they can benefit prisoners, but often benefit a corporation’s bottom line far more. “I don’t know that it is good or bad as a whole,” he said, “but I think we should be critical of the application of these technologies and ensure that they are used appropriately and not used to extract more money from already vulnerable people.”
Perhaps the simplest way the tech industry can help, Teresa Hodges said, is simply by being willing to hire people with criminal records, because mass incarceration is costly to society at large, even for those who are never imprisoned.
“We’re all paying for it,” she said.