While in federal prison, Frederick Hutson went through the tremendous difficulty that American inmates have trying to communicate with their family and friends outside of the institution, and he developed an idea for making communications easier for individuals residing in prison that now has customers in 88 countries.
“Mass incarceration has been focused on a very particular group of people who have little socioeconomic power and those people are then paying the highest rates for everything including communications and bearing the costs of this huge system – the prison-phone system alone is a $2 billion industry,” Hutson tells Madison365. “This is a huge industry that is basically supported by low-income black and brown people. That’s a huge problem. When we decided to take this on, we thought, ‘How can we leverage technology to somewhat even the playing field to make a difference?’”
The Brooklyn-born Hutson, who runs his company out of Las Vegas, was in Madison on Oct. 3 to host “Fireside Chat with Frederick Hutson: From Prison to Start-up” where he tealked about his journey and his challenges in building his start-up company, Pigeonly, It was all part of the ribbon-cutting celebration at the new Spark building, home of the new American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact and StartingBlock, a brand-new 50,000+-square-foot entrepreneurial hub on East Washington Ave., a few blocks east of the Capitol.
Hutson is the CEO and co-founder of Pigeonly, a low-cost communication and financial services platform that makes it easy for people to search, find and communicate with an incarcerated loved ones.
“We have 600 or 700 people signing up a day. We’re shipping anywhere between 3,000 and 4,000 orders a day around the country,” he says. “We have customers in 88 countries. We process between 2 million and 3 million phone minutes a month.”
What exactly is Pigeonly?
“Pigeonly is a very simple platform that makes it very easy to search, find, and connect people with their loved ones. That’s really important,” Hutson says. “One of the main problems that people have when they are interfacing or interacting with a loved one who is incarcerated is that they have a very hard time tracking them down and knowing where they are in the system.
“It’s one of those things were the first time you do this, everybody is at a loss and trying to figure out: ‘How do I do this? How do I find him? How do I find an attorney? How do I post his bail?’ Everybody has a bunch of questions and it’s a very stressful and emotional situation when it happens,” he adds.
Hutson knew that they would have to build something where people could easily search and find their loved ones even before they got to the connecting part.
“One of the core things that our businesses is built upon is that we built a propitiatory data base that basically collects, organizes and aggregates all public criminal justice records to figure out: who’s in prison? Where are you in prison? What’s your age? What’s your sex? What’s your potential release state? When did you come in? What’s the data around that facility? What’s the rules on mailing at that facility? What’s the mailing address? What’s the phone provider there? What are the calling rates at that facility?” Hutson says.
“I think corporations are beginning to recognize that if we are going to continue to grow and we are going to continue to expand, we are going to have to understand this other demographic that we previously ignored. Everyday problems and everyday inefficiencies that you see are just opportunities to build a solution from your perspective.”
The phone part works very similar, he says, to Google Voice or Skype.
“Essentially, what it does is that they will provide a low-cost telephone number to be reached on and then that telephone number then connects to the family’s existing cell phone or landline,” Hutson says. “So when an inmate calls home, instead of calling his mom direct, he will call the Pigeonly number and the Pigeonly number will connect them in the cheapest way possible.
Pigeonly’s technology cuts the cost of expensive prison calls by as much as 80 percent and allows people to send their inmate photos, greeting cards, and more right from a cell phone, tablet or computer.
“In federal prison, an inmate is allowed to speak 300 minutes a month,” Hutson says. “For those 300 minutes, without our service, that would cost $70. With our service, those same 300 minutes would cost $18. So, it’s a pretty significant discount.”
Subscription to Pigeonly starts as low as $7 a month and ultimately depends upon how many services you want to use.
Hutson has always been an entrepreneur. He started his first real company when he was 19 years old and a member of the active-duty Air Force. When he first arrived in Las Vegas, he noticed how very hot it was while he was driving in his car. He started a window-tinting business that made about $100,000 in sales that first summer.
The success of that business led him to an even bigger business – the only problem is that it wasn’t legal – moving marijuana from Mexico through Tuscon, Arizona to Florida through the parcel companies. The business netted approximately $500,000 annually.
“It was the same thing. I saw a distribution problem and I felt like I had a better way to do it. Which it got so efficient that it caught the federal government’s attention,” Hutson smiles.
At the age of 23, Hutson was arrested by the DEA, indicted for distributing over 3,000 kg of marijuana, and served a sentence of 51 months beginning in 2007. It was during that four-year prison sentence that the plans for Pigeonly were hatched and when he released in March of 2012, Hutson immediately started to build on his new idea.
“Being in prison was my first exposure and experience with the problems that inmates face. And not only what inmates face, but what their friends and families face from their perspective,” Hutson says. “In a lot of ways, your friends and families are bearing a burden just as much as you are throughout your incarceration.”
One of the problems that Hutson noticed is how inefficient and how expensive it was to stay in touch with the outside world. “One of the things I saw while I was in prison is those people who were able to stay in touch with their loved ones … those are the people who didn’t come back,” Hutson says. “People who didn’t have the financial means to keep in touch … those were the guys I did see come back even in the short time I was there.
“Observations backed by over 40 years of research show that communication and education are two of the factors that can affect recidivism the most – by as much as 40 percent,” Hutson adds. “It can make a huge impact.”
As an entrepreneur and a businessperson, Hutson is a role model to entrepreneurs of color who make up a small percentage of the entrepreneurial world and also to those who have faced some very adverse circumstances.
“I’m a reluctant role model. I don’t consider myself to be an expert by any means. I consider myself to be somebody who is learning as I’m doing,” he says. “ But if my story is inspiring to other people and makes them feel like they, too, can do it … that’s great.”
“The big thing that I often remind people about is that a lot of times in a lot of ways, when you come from a unique and diverse background, it feels like a disadvantage in a lot of ways. What I try to remind folks when I’m speaking to them is that it’s because you come from a unique and diverse background that gives you your greatest edge,” he continues. “You’re going to have a unique and diverse outlook and approach to a problem that only you can solve because you are going to see something from a level and from a perspective that will allow you to solve it in a way that creates value for them.
“I think corporations are beginning to recognize that if we are going to continue to grow and we are going to continue to expand, we are going to have to understand this other demographic that we previously ignored,” he adds. “Everyday problems and everyday inefficiencies that you see are just opportunities to build a solution from your perspective.”
Although the company is still young, Pigeonly has become one of the largest low-cost providers, saving families more time and money than any other inmate service provider in the country. Hutson says that overall his vision is to build a technology layer that ultimately makes significant improvements to the criminal justice system on a whole.
“There are so many changes that need to happen in the criminal justice system but there’s no way to measure the effectiveness and there’s no way to have a platform that creates innovation because nobody else can build things in this system because there is no access to the system,” he says. “So one of our missions is – starting with the data that we already collect – to build a platform that other people can build products and services that address the problems within the criminal justice system on top of our database and on top of our data platform.”
Hutson hopes to democratize and decentralize criminal justice data and to help other entrepreneurs reform the criminal justice system. He believes that we can see real change.
“Regardless how people feel about people in prison, the fact is that the majority of people don’t have a life sentence which means that a majority of people will be released,” Hutson says. “So what people really need deal with is to ask themselves: What type of person do you want to be released? Because either way they are getting out.
“Do you want to release someone who will mesh well and be a productive contributor in society or do you want to warehouse people and that person has a very slim chance of being successful upon release which impacts communities which impacts taxpayers which impacts everyone?” he adds. “It’s much more expensive to keep someone in prison than to send them to school. One in three people are impacted by the criminal justice system in the U.S. So it touches more people than people realize. This is not somebody else’s problem; this is everybody’s problem.”