'Instagram for Prisons': How a mom's daily pics kept her son alive

If it hadn’t been for his mom’s daily correspondence while he spent eight years in prison, Marcus Bullock may not be the dad and business leader he is today. He created an app that connects families with incarcerated loved ones.

Justice reform activist helps people in prison stay connected with their families, even during COVID

Marcus Bullock is excited to have more time at home with his family this year, because he knows the pain of being away from loved ones while he was in prison for a crime he committed at age 15. (Submitted by Marcus Bullock)

Originally aired December 13, 2020.

When Marcus Bullock watches his nine and four-year-old kids go stir-crazy this year at home under lockdown — bouncing on the sofa, chasing the dog — he's able "to give them grace." 

He remembers feeling a similar pent-up energy during his time in jail. 

At 15, Bullock was sentenced to eight years in an adult maximum security prison for making what he calls "the worst mistake of his life" — an armed carjacking. 

If it hadn't been for his mom, he may have spent more hours going "crazy", staring out a three-inch window at the Fairfax County Jail in Virginia, pumping out pushups and talking to imaginary voices in the cinder-block walls.

His mother kept him alive and sane, he says, through her unwavering love — and a very specific type of correspondence involving cars and cheeseburgers.

"It was magic," he says of the daily photos and letters he received from his mom. Her messages kept him feeling connected to the outside world, and hopeful about his future.

Today, Bullock's not only a gracious dad, he's a committed justice reform advocate, and the founder and CEO of Flikshop, an app and service inspired by his mom's love.

Flikshop lets anyone with a smartphone send personalized, photo-based postcards to folks in prison, as easily as they could send a text message — reminding those behind bars that they're loved, and that they too can be successful when they get out.

Just like his mom did for him.

Mom was 'Instagram before there was Instagram'

Sylvia Bullock saw something in her son had shifted a couple years into his sentence. He'd moved from denial to depression. 

Despite missing out on Christmas dinners, basketball tournaments, homecomings, prom night, and his niece's first steps, what Bullock calls "the meaningful moments" — he'd maintained a false hope that the jail guards would let him out. 

Bullock at age 14, with his mom, sister and niece. This is the last photo they took together before he began his sentence. (Submitted by Marcus Bullock)

Surely the judge who'd sentenced him, would realize he'd made a mistake, the teen told himself. 

It wasn't until meeting men who'd spent decades locked up that he realized he was at the court's mercy. His usual optimism faded quickly. 

His mother, who had driven hours to visit her only son, decided she would have to take fast action.

You will feel the energy and the love, if I can't be there to emote with you, to wrap my arms around you.- Sylvia Bullock

"Every single day I'm going to send something," Bullock recalls his mom saying. "You will feel the energy and the love, if I can't be there to emote with you, to wrap my arms around you, if I can't be there to tell you the great things that are happening…." So began her promise to send him a photo from the outside world every day. 

Sylvia sent photos — sometimes as mundane as images of wallpaper, cheeseburgers, chili and a mattress — with messages: "Marcus, one day you're going to enjoy this fat, juicy burger," or "You'll sleep in a comfortable bed one day."

Or, "one day you'll drive in a car with seat heaters." 

"They have cars right now that can warm your butt! What?!" Bullock recalls being floored. "They have heaters in the cars that can warm your butt?! I gotta feel this!" 

Mail-call became "magic." 

He and his friends in prison began to relish her shared moments of everyday life. The pictures transported them to a world of comfort and opportunity.

Their interest caught his mom off guard when she came to visit.

"What's going on Mrs. Bullock?! How did everything work out with your washer and dryer?" they'd asked, taken in by the drama of which brand was better.

"Just go with it," he'd tell her. And she would. She'd grow to know the men and keep them updated, too.

"They became part of the family," he says. 

Sending sonograms to jail cells

Bullock left prison in 2004. He was 23. 

After landing a job — which, Bullock points out, is a struggle for those who experience stigma in connection with their criminal record — he started a contracting business, travelled and got married. 

His friends in prison wanted photos.

As much as he loved them, Bullock couldn't fathom printing pictures, buying envelopes and lining up at post offices, like his mom had. Not in a world of smartphones and instant apps.

"If I could text you, big bro, my life will be so much easier," he'd lament. 

Cell phones, of course, are not permitted in prison. 

That's when Bullock came up with the solution: starting Flikshop — an app that lets people pay for images on their phones to be converted into "real, tangible postcards" that get delivered to jails on their behalf — what Bullock calls "bite-size pieces of love." 

Since its launch, Flikshop has connected more than 170,000 families across the States.

Bullock shared his story and the inspiration behind the Flikshop app at a TED Salon event held at the TED World Theater in New York City, June 27, 2019. (Submitted by Marcus Bullock)

Take the example of a daughter who was six when her dad went to jail, Bullock says: "When he comes home and she's 16, he knows about her favourite subject in high school." Perhaps he'd also know which friends went to the amusement park with her, based on the photos she sent, he says.

It's like heaven.- Marcus Bullock

Some photos are even more significant. 

One man learned he was going to be a dad after receiving "a sonogram with these little heart emojis" Bullock says, and a note that read, "I'm your little girl!"

"That was mind-blowing for me. These are the moments that folks have been dying to share, for decades, and have never been able to do it."

Bullock calls it "Instagram for prisons." 

Today, he's expanded to create the Flikshop School of Business to teach entrepreneurship, with the longer-term goal of reducing crime and recidivism. 

And he's able to share precious moments with his own family, in person. Which, even under lockdown, he says, "is like heaven."

Written and produced by Kate Adach.


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