Communicate affordably with imprisoned loved ones
March 25, 2015 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Pigeon.ly has joined Y-Combinator's 2015 Winter class. While in prison, founder Frederick Hutson was amazed by the cost and difficulty of communicating with those outside. When he was released in 2011, he founded Pigeon.ly (originally Picturegram) to help people send pictures (and, later, make phone calls) to inmates. Additional coverage: The New York Times (2013), Forbes (2014), Planet Money.
posted by Going To Maine (31 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Setting aside what they do for a minute... that name:

It started as "Fotopigeon," which actually makes sense as a metaphor, a carrier pigeon delivering messages for an inmate. And then I imagine Paul Graham or whoever taking this out of a box gingerly and examining it before dumping it in the hopper of the Silicon Valley Bullshit Machine, giving it two cranks and pooping out the nonsensical "Pigeon.ly".
posted by indubitable at 7:40 AM on March 25, 2015 [14 favorites]


What a fantastic idea. Frankly, the best thing about this is that it's taking even a tiny amount of money away from the prison-industrial complex.
posted by 256 at 7:41 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Most of us could never imagine how starved for connection and contact people on the inside are. Many of them lose friends and family, as the years stretch, and the frustrations of working around the system to connect with someone wear away connections.

I became familiar with the system when my little brother did time for heroin posession, and I'm currently communicating with a penpal I found through The Transformative Justice Law Project's Write to Win Project. I cannot stress how much a simple postcard means to someone on the inside.

The isolation and dehumanization of the prison industrial complex are inhumane. I can't abolish prisons and set up a more humane treatment model on my own; but I can make a real difference in how bearable one person's life is.

Fredrick Hutson is doing good work.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:47 AM on March 25, 2015 [18 favorites]


the nonsensical "Pigeon.ly".

The thing with "Fotopigeon" is that it sounds limited to photographs; indeed, Fotopigeon is still the photo-sending service. The calling service is Telepigeon, and they also have Haystac, an API for finding prisoners. So while pigeon.ly is sort of silly (to say nothing of the missing "k" from Haystac...) I think it does keep them much less confined to one particular area. (Mission statement, beeteedubs: "Pigeonly builds technology products for those who need it most, underserved communities")
posted by Going To Maine at 7:48 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


From the NY Times piece: In Silicon Valley, Chris Redlitz, a venture capitalist, and his wife, Beverly Parenti, have started an organization called the Last Mile, which is opening a business accelerator within San Quentin State Prison.

I can't wait to see what happens when one of these prison incubator ventures gains traction and vulture capital does its switcheroo game to push out the founders and reap the windfall. I have a feeling that the reaction will be much stronger from former prisoners than from the stereotypical pencil-necked geeks that SV could step on without a second thought.
posted by dr_dank at 7:48 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow, are valleybros worried they might someday be imprisoned?

Seriously, I'm thrilled to see a startup that doesn't cater to entitled manchildren.
posted by Monochrome at 7:59 AM on March 25, 2015 [14 favorites]


I just heard the NPR story on this as I was driving to work. It's a great idea (that I wish weren't necessary).
posted by rtha at 8:01 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have a feeling that the reaction will be much stronger from former prisoners than from the stereotypical pencil-necked geeks that SV could step on without a second thought.

I suspect it will play out like it did for Stringer Bell.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:02 AM on March 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


this is probably better than fixing our corrupt, broken, venal, usurious prison system.
posted by boo_radley at 8:35 AM on March 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's surprisingly hard to stay in touch with people in prison, and the way that the gatekeepers make money from it is pretty grotesque.

If these folks can break that stranglehold without enabling undesirable messages (e.g., arranging smuggling or between prisoners and their confederates on the outside) then I wish them the very best.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:39 AM on March 25, 2015


I don't quite get the excitement. All of these services are already available.

The reason this is a good venture capital investment is the same reason these services are so evil, generally: there's a massive profit margin to be made extracting rents from people whose basic rights are abrogated and then sold back to them by private firms.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:44 AM on March 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


Most of us could never imagine how starved for connection and contact people on the inside are.

I don't doubt that they are starved for connection, but here's a bit of a counterpoint: when I practiced criminal defense, I sweartagod I heard from my incarcerated clients more often than I heard from clients out on bond. You think I mean I got letters? Hahahahaha ... no, I mean phone calls, from smuggled-in cell phones.

And yes, heaps and heaps of letters. Man, those letters.

Even prosecutors got letters. I remember a woman prosecutor who helped put a guy away, laughing about letters she got from him telling her he wanted to take her out when he was eventually released ... but telling her she needed to "stay fit."
posted by jayder at 9:04 AM on March 25, 2015


Assuming pigeonly remains cheaper and more convenient than the existing service, I'm sure the prisoners are excited.
posted by Monochrome at 9:05 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't quite get the excitement. All of these services are already available.

Current prison services can be astonishingly expensive. In an era where phone calls in the outside world are charged at cents per minute (if that), contracted prison services can be dollars per minute with minimum charges in dollar amounts. I'd add from my own experience that the services are often poorly and/or intentionally designed to confuse and extract as many dollars as possible. I ended up with a $500 phone bill because of a poorly designed UI, and web design is more or less what I do for a living.

More generally if a purpose of prison is to rehabilitate, then really these services should be as cheap as possible, rather than the converse.
posted by idb at 9:18 AM on March 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


I took a look at FotoPigeon after hearing the Planet Money story. The interesting thing about it is there's nothing specific on the site about it being for prisons. It's just a photo printing service. Upload a bunch of photos, they print and mail them for $0.50 / photo. That's pretty great! It seems an ideal service to offer along with KidPost; mail printed photos of the kids to grandma!

OTOH the founder's secret sauce is his understanding of the prison market. His own story about being an entrepreneurial felon is compelling, and he's very well spoken on the Planet Money interview. (He has a hilarious story about marketing; turns out prisoners like junk mail!) I think it's very smart he's expanding in to other services for prisoners; if he can break the disgusting $4/minute lock that predatory phone companies have on captive customers, that'd be a win.
posted by Nelson at 9:34 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


this is probably better than fixing our corrupt, broken, venal, usurious prison system.

Yes. God damn Frederick Hudson for choosing not to fix the entire US prison system instead of devising a practical scheme to reduce the misery of many of its victims. How could he have been so selfish?
posted by yoink at 9:44 AM on March 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'll just step in to offer an additional word of testimony to what a blatant rip-off phone calls to prisoners are. It's been a few years since we had to do it, but it was measured in dollars per minute.

Anything that helps break up that thuggish monopoly has a thousand best wishes in my book.

As pointed out above, cutting off prisoners from their family and friends is only harmful to both sides. And companies that extort money from families who happen to have family members in prison deserve to die a thousand painful deaths in the nethermost regions of hell.

Not that I have strong opinions on this topic, or anything . . .
posted by flug at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


yoink: "How could he have been so selfish?"

From the New York Times article: "Mr. Huston estimated, the photos, combined with other offerings, like a phone service, could bring $22 million in annual revenue within three years." So that's how.

I know you'd for me to back down and be all "ohhh the perfect is the enemy of the good gosh I see now", but shit, he's still a middle man working people with almost zero options. Huston's business model is exactly a result of our society's inability to pay for its demand for incarceration. And yes, I do and will continue to have a huge issue with that. It's impossible for me to see this in anything but a systematic frame of reference.
posted by boo_radley at 10:28 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


From the New York Times article: "Mr. Huston estimated, the photos, combined with other offerings, like a phone service, could bring $22 million in annual revenue within three years." So that's how.

So he should offer the service for free, go bankrupt in a week, and strand all the prisoners with only their currently vastly more expensive options to fall back on, right? Because that would be, what, noble?

Unless you're saying that making a business a going concern is in itself illegitimate (in which case, why pick on Hutson? Why not pick on, say, Metafilter.com? Or whoever pays your salary?), then that's a ridiculously silly objection to the service Hutson is providing.
posted by yoink at 10:41 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


From the New York Times article: "Mr. Huston estimated, the photos, combined with other offerings, like a phone service, could bring $22 million in annual revenue within three years." So that's how.

I think of this as an example of how much more than $22 million is being gouged from prison populations right now.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:47 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


he's still a middle man working people with almost zero options

Better to have some competition amongst the middlemen. Yes, it is a systematic frame of reference, but it's the one we're operating in. Also I may be stepping out on a limb here but I suspect Mr Huston, having himself been a prisoner, probably has a more subtle take on this than this attitude gives him credit for. It's possible to run a profitable business ethically. Yes, even in the corrupt US prison industry.
posted by Nelson at 10:49 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have a feeling that the reaction will be much stronger from former prisoners than from the stereotypical pencil-necked geeks that SV could step on without a second thought.

While it may be satisfying to imagine a bunch of ex-cons giving S.V. douchebag types the what-for, in reality, that is not how you succeed at business. The same power structures that land people in prison also basically make the skills one learns in prison of limited utility in the outside world, hence the necessity of things like business incubators to teach people how to be an entrepreneur.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:50 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also in the 2015 class is the Detroit Water Project which "matches people across the globe with Detroit residents without running water in their homes" to crowdsource their bills.
posted by creade at 12:07 PM on March 25, 2015


If you're familiar with prison culture I guess it makes sense to name this type of service after a pigeon. Who wouldn't want to be a police informant?
posted by jeffhoward at 12:46 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you're familiar with prison culture I guess it makes sense to name this type of service after a pigeon. Who wouldn't want to be a police informant?

Interesting point. Although, given the founder is familiar with prison culture and the service has been pretty popular, it seems like that "stool pigeon" might not quite have such a strong association these days.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:54 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


hm so, i seem to recall reading on the blue a few months ago about a prison teleconferencing system that cost small-but-significant amounts of money for the prisoners to use, that was being installed in prisons around the nation... IN REPLACEMENT OF in-person visitation rooms. My memory of that makes me very, very wary of this new development to disrupt prison communications.
posted by rebent at 2:03 PM on March 25, 2015


it seems like that "stool pigeon" might not quite have such a strong association these days.

Fair enough. Most of my references to 1940s criminal slang come from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
posted by jeffhoward at 2:16 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


rebent - I'm not sure I understand.. You're saying the services Pigeon.ly offers are like the exploitative options currently on offer like the one you just mentioned? Pigeon.ly isn't disrupting prison communication, it's allowing them to happen cheaper and more easily.
posted by sio42 at 3:35 PM on March 25, 2015


> IN REPLACEMENT OF in-person visitation rooms.

Yeah, this is not that - it is not run by or contracted by the prison. It's not being used by the prisons to do anything, and it doesn't charge the families of inmates a zillion dollars to use it.
posted by rtha at 3:42 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Telecom serving prisons is a massive racket, profiting from the poorest people at extortionate rates, meanwhile, serving the ends of private prison privateers by increasing the odds that prisoners will return.

Why? Because social connection is a key to improving health and chances of avoiding crime and it keeps kids with imprisoned parents (of which there are millions) more in touch, which may reduce their odds of going the same way. The government should be providing cheap or free calls to facilitate contact (while monitoring it, which is obviously cheap and easy these days), not letting people profit by price gouging a literally captive market.

So, this seems like a good idea but what would be even better would be for someone to hack to the phone system to give prisoners free calls, given that the FTC or whoever is in charge doesn't seem to have done much. (I think there may be some good changes coming, but recall thinking they didn't go far enough or perhaps haven't actually gone through). Anyway, of course that would be illegal and I don't recommend anyone breaking the law except if they want to do civil disobedience and are willing to face the consequences. I think this is clearly an example of an unjust system.
posted by Maias at 4:26 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Video Chats Are Replacing In-Person Jail Visits, While One Tech Company Profits. (Not about Pigeon.ly). "Securus now obligates many of these correctional facilities to eliminate in-person visits completely, in favor of their video systems".
posted by Nelson at 12:02 PM on April 15, 2015


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