For most people, a prison sentence would be the end of a story. For Frederick Hutson, it was only the beginning.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Hutson acted as the unofficial handyman of his apartment building. He would make a few extra dollars week finding lost rings in sink drains, fixing appliances, or other odd jobs. He would annoy his mother by bringing discarded gadgets up to their apartment to tinker with.
He, his mother, and his three siblings moved to St. Petersburg, Florida when he was 13 years old. There, the drug industry - particularly marijuana - kept his neighborhood afloat.
“I just saw how they were currently doing things, and to me, it didn’t make sense,” he says. “I thought there could be a better, more efficient way.”
He was right. He came up with an entirely new system for moving marijuana, using his existing businesses in Florida. The illicit business took off, but it eventually caught up to him.
When he was 23-years-old, he was arrested in a joint operation by the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local Las Vegas and Tampa police.
He expected to receive a short sentence, because of the type of drug he was transporting, plus the fact that it was his first offense. He even tried to keep the secret from his mother as he was preparing for his court date. But the prosecutor changed their mind at the last minute, and he was sentenced to 51 months - more than four years - in prison.
“You’re mixed in with people of all different backgrounds, all different level of crimes, all different level of sentences. And you start seeing the toll that prison takes on people. You’re in this completely new world that operates on its own set of rules,” he says.
For Hutson, prison presented him with a whole new set of systems to be optimized. And this time, he could do it legally.
One particularly difficult system had to do with communication with the outside world. In most federal and state prisons, inmates have to set up accounts with private companies to get access to the phone. These companies often have an agreement with the prison, which shares in a portion of the profit.
In the past, some of these calls could cost as much as $14 a minute. The average job for a prisoner pays less than $1.25 an hour.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of most of these phone calls at $0.11 to $0.22 a minute. But two years later, in the midst of a legal challenge of that cap, the FCC announced that it would no longer defend a major part of its own rules. In June 2017, the court ruled in favor of the phone companies and law enforcement officials who were challenging the original cap.
While in prison himself, Hutson was able to keep in touch with his family because his sister deposited $75 each month to go towards food, toiletries - and the phone bill.
His brother also sent him mail, which is an option for families that can’t afford the pricey phone bills.
“When your name is called, it feels as if someone rang your doorbell. You open up the door, and it's this long lost person that you love that you haven’t seen in years,” he says. “When people get mail they’re just generally happier. The compound is happier. There’s less drama and less strife.”
He said it was important for him to have ties to the outside world during his sentence, but he had to find a balance.
“Getting content with your current situation for however long you have to be there is harder when your mind and thoughts are always on the outside,” he says. “You have to try to find that balance of reaching out and staying in touch enough, but not so much that it makes you depressed. Because you’re in there, and everyone is moving at the speed of light on the outside.”
Studies show that prisoners who maintain ties with their families have a lower rate of recidivism. And Hutson says the close family relationships he maintained in prison were key to his success after he was eventually released in 2011.
A year later, when Hutson and his business partner launched Pigeonly, their focus was on the 20 million people who have a loved one in prison. They were looking to disrupt the $6 billion inmate service industry. And they were looking to give their users an outstanding customer service experience, in a space where that is remarkably rare.
He and his team have a unique edge in that their founder has faced both sides of this issue. He has been an inmate trying to keep in touch with the outside world. And today, he’s on the outside trying to keep in touch with the people he met while serving his sentence.
And today, the only consistent problem they face, he says, is how to scale fast enough to meet the demand.
“We encounter some sort of growing pain at least every month,” he says.
Looking back over the past five years, Hutson marvels at the amount of support he’s received from the community. Since the beginning, he’s had people asking if they could support the work he was doing, which is the reason he’s opened the doors to equity crowdfunding.
“It wasn’t so much about the dollar amount. It’s more about anyone who wants to participate,” he says. “We have people who are getting involved and saying ‘I want to donate the free subscription purchase you’ve given me to a family that can’t afford to stay in touch.’ That’s the kind of stuff we’re seeing, and it’s really what we were going for.”