NEW YORK — Marcus Bullock made a mistake that could have cost him his future and sent him to prison for life at just 15.
But, while he would end up going to prison for eight years for his involvement in an armed carjacking, his time incarcerated would change the trajectory of his life and many others.
Bullock, who credits his mother Sylvia for basically “saving his life in prison,” by sending him a steady stream of postcards and photos daily, launched what he describes as “one of the most impactful apps in the Apple App Store and Android Google Play stores, Flikshop.”
The app was designed to keep families that are affected by incarceration connected by allowing users to take a photo, add brief text and for only $0.99 Flikshop prints the photo and text on a real postcard and ships it directly to any person, in any jail, prison, youth facility or immigration facility in the U.S.
The app is currently approved for use in more than 2,700 correctional facilities across the country.
Bullock says that in addition to helping families stay connected, Flikshop, also known by many as “Instagram for the incarcerated,” acts as a bold force to spotlight the importance of reentry back into society as well as recidivism reduction tools.
The U.S. has among some of the highest rates of recidivism in the world with nearly 44 percent of those released from prison being rearrested within their first year out, according to statistics from the National Institute of Justice. Further, the institute also found that in 2005, about 68 percent of 405,000 people released from prison were arrested for a new crime within three years, and 77 percent were arrested within five years.
“We want to erase the stigma that comes with incarceration and look forward to impacting outcomes with storytelling and educational tools,” Bullock said.
Such tools include the Flikshop School of Business, which focuses on entrepreneurship training courses for those interested in technology as well as “community creation,” via the Flikshop Angels project, which allows the children of incarcerated parents to stay connected free of charge.
Bullock estimates that more than 140,000 people who are incarcerated are currently using the Flikshop app to stay in touch with loved ones.
But, Bullock’s mother, Sylvia, who now handles community relations for Flikshop, had mixed feelings about the new business in its early stages.
“The truth is, when Marcus came home from 8 years of incarceration I wanted him to leave the past in the past,” she recalls. “I knew the stigma attached to persons who had been incarcerated was vicious, especially for black men. When Flikshop launched, I knew I would have to face the ugly shame and realities of incarceration.”
However, her feelings about facing her son’s realities of incarceration would be overshadowed by the app’s positive mission. “I did not know or understand that my deepest pain would turn into the most powerful witness of purpose, peace and expressions of love,” she says, adding “Flikshop allowed me to acknowledge my past and experience peace in what happened in my family. I had no idea how much I would actually enjoy my work at Flikshop.”
Anthony Belton, whom Bullock met while in prison, also believes in the power of the app. “Flikshop, is, and has become, a very critical tool, in keeping families connected to their incarcerated love ones, via postcard,” says Belton, who now is a lead coordinator for Flikshop’s School of Business (FSB).
“Being the son of a former educator and having taught my entire incarceration, (GED, introductory college courses, etc.), I truly understand the importance of giving yourself a fighting chance,” Belton says, “through furthering the education process and showing individuals, that have never been exposed to what it looks like to build a business, or learn financial, and digital literacy, or to have the opportunity to embark upon a real career in tech.”
He adds, “Coming from someone, who has first-hand experience; the component of feeling supported and connected, can literally be the determining factor between life (remaining hopeful through the adversity, by having the tangible evidence of support, i.e. Flikshop postcard), and/or death (despair, hopelessness, and depression, i.e., no Flikshop or correspondence from outside, friends and family showing indication of support).”
FSB graduates include Tim Thomas, who started his research company Fact Law Research with help from FSB and Georgia State University after serving nearly 15 years of incarceration. “FSB really helped me to catch-up on my tech skills,” he says.
Alex Gales is also a FSB scholar and son of a deaf parent. Gales, who is fluent in sign language, plans on opening an interpreting agency to help better serve the deaf community. “I have one son…and I want him to be proud of me…so that he knows that what I went through (incarceration), I didn’t let it define me,” he says.
As someone who has experienced prison firsthand, Bullock has some definite thoughts on how “prison reform” should be tackled.
Among things, he says need fixing include some of the “Draconian” laws that lock people up for very long sentences for comparatively minor or non-violent crimes.
Bullock relates that one of his friends, nicknamed “Spider,” was also in prison, serving a life sentence, when the two men met at age 17.
“I think many prisons are based more on the concept of punishment and less on rehabilitation–and that needs to change,” he says, adding that “Prison reform is about real people, real families…I want people who are incarcerated to be treated more fairly with more dignity.”
Other reforms he favors include adding more classrooms and even libraries to prison facilities to allow people to obtain skills and jobs when they are released.
“The question needs to be asked,” says Bullock, “that of the 600,000 people who come out of prison each year, how do we want them to re-enter society and the community?”
Bullock wants people to be able to contribute to the community the way he has. Overall, he says reform should “help people heal once they’re out and help them get past the trauma endured from one bad decision.”
Looking back on Bullock’s childhood, it’s hard to imagine he would ever be in trouble with the law.
In media interviews, Bullock relates that he had dreams of playing basketball professionally and was even an early-stage entrepreneur, selling candy at just 8-years old.
But, he began to run with the wrong crowd around age 13 following a kidnapping by local gang members in his Prince George’s county neighborhood in Maryland that scared him for his safety. He recalls even carrying a gun for self-protection.
He then began a downward spiral that included both taking and selling drugs and basically leading a double-life of continuing to go to school and play sports while selling drugs and making upwards of $1,000 per week as a 13-year-old!
In the pursuit of even more cash, Bullock says he began to steal cars at 14, making around $5,000 in a matter of minutes. He claimed he was stealing about 2 cars every week, while continuing to attend school and church, get good grades, and play sports.
Bullock would come to see his criminal endeavors as a means to an end. “I wanted to make a million and go to an Ivy League school,” he recalls, saying that he judged the good things he did in school and church as outweighing his crimes.
However, Bullock’s world nearly came to an abrupt end in 1996 when he was arrested at age 15 for carjacking and sentenced to eight years in an adult, maximum security prison.
Bullock’s mother, Sylvia, made good on her promise to write him a letter and send him a picture every day, so he could see “there’s life after prison.”
He says the letters and photos “saved his life” in prison and would lead to an important computer class he took while in Brunswick Correctional Center at age 21.
After his release, Bullock’s first job out of prison was at a paint store, which led to his starting a painting contracting company.
Those experiences would lead Bullock to create FlikShop in 2012, called by many as the “Instagram for the incarcerated.”
Today, Bullock’s app along with his entrepreneur training program, FSB, has received numerous awards and accolades including being chosen by Tech Stars as one of only ten projects out of 10,000 to receive massive funding as well as being named one of John Legend’s Unlocked Futures business accelerators.
Bullock is also a member of the Justice Policy Institute’s board of directors and in 2019, he was named one of The Root 100.
Further, he also serves as an advisor to the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, and he gives frequent inspirational talks to various criminal justice and other organizations, detailing his perseverance and innovation despite numerous obstacles.
Bullock explains that his ultimate goal of FlikShop is to reduce recidivism by 50 percent by year 2030.
Asked why Flikshop is better than traditional mail and packages, Bullock explains that its ease-of-use is key.
“Flikshop is quick to onboard, is user-friendly and less expensive than all the components it would take for traditional mail (ie: time to write/print photos, cost of envelopes, and postage),” he says.
“It is also accepted in more facilities than traditional mail, as a result of us working to become an approved 3rd party provider for families within corrections. It is also a great way to create relationships that support employment and community after incarceration.”
In addition, some major companies including Google, Amazon, Boeing and Delta Air Lines have entered into partnerships with Bullock and Flikshop to help the formerly incarcerated re-acclimate to society by providing workshops on jobs as well as to learn valuable digital literacy skills.
“Our returning citizens here in DC are looking for opportunities the moment they get out of jail or prison and there has been a massive gap in tech literacy skills development for years,” Bullock said, following a recent digital literacy workshop. “We’re excited to change that today!”
Phil Andrews, founder and president of 100 Black Men of Eastern New York, believes the Flikshop app is a positive force in the lives of people who are incarcerated.
“It helps someone’s self-esteem to know that people on the outside still care about them even when they’re incarcerated,” says Andrews, a former NYC corrections’ officer.
“I think it’s a great concept in many ways because it’s electronic and makes it much easier for corrections staff to vet and get messages to the incarcerated,” noting that all physical mail has to be checked thoroughly as it comes in to any facility.
Putting things into perspective, Bullock’s mother, Sylvia, says she knows her son’s work is making a difference.
“My greatest joy is knowing that I am making a difference in the lives of people I will probably never meet. I love our company’s work ethic, diversity, its sense of purpose, and the collaborative team spirit we share. We are Flikshop!!”
Belton, Bullock’s longtime friend, adds, “I’m honored to be in a position, to give back to returning citizens, underserved communities and justice impacted organizations, via the educational/training tool, (FSB), inspired by the revolution, of the mobile app Flikshop.”
Edited by Virginia Van Zandt