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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

St. Valentine

Cupid’s been called an angel, a cherub, a “studly immortal” man, a god. I can’t find a reasonable explanation why, in 2022, an armed baby represents love but he does.

In any form, Cupid is essentially a connector. And he doesn’t pass over prisons and jails.

Valentine's Day is the busiest season at Flikshop. Founded in 2011 by Marcus Bullock, a man who had just finished an eight year sentence in a Virginia prison for a crime he committed at age 15, Flikshop connects families and friends to incarcerated loved ones through postcards ordered through its app. Flikshop users choose photos on their devices to design a postcard that the company prints and mails to the recipient. Right now, 2700 facilities accept Flikshop postcards. They cost about 99 cents.

The pandemic badly strained communications for the incarcerated. Visits were understandably canceled due to viral surges — as of December 2021, 47 state corrections systems had resumed visits while four had not — but those cancellations kicked off a cascade of closed connections. Without in-person visits, video visits (where they’re available), telephone, and written communications were the only options.

But video visits and telephone calls are notoriously expensive. A few states allowed free phone calls but they are evaporating as visits phase back in.

Free phone calls were fraught with problems, too. At the pandemic’s outset, at least 300,000 prisoners were locked down, a status that denied them phone calls since phones are located in common or recreation areas and lockdowns confine people to their cells. Even when they were allowed to call, some had to squeeze a shower and a call into short periods of time.

That left letters, but even they hit a snag. Facilities are increasingly banning physical mail. The Florida Department of Correction refused to deliver Christmas cards to survivors of prison rape.

Flikshop, though, snuck through the system because Bullock, a prison insider, designed the company’s services knowing how a correctional facility mailroom operates; namely, postcards get delivered quickest because they’re essentially incapable of smuggling contraband.

Correctional facilities have embraced postcards and swapped out traditional letters in exchange. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous “Sheriff Joe”, limited all non-legal mail to postcards in 2007. Arpaio invested time and energy into conceiving humiliating and cruel twists on the carceral experience. From housing inmates in tents in scorching heat (a practice that ended in 2017 when he lost reelection), forcing male prisoners to wear pink, and piping patriotic music and opera into the halls for 12 hours per day, Arpaio proved to be as petty as he was punitive.

To emulate Arpaio, sheriffs in twelve more states — California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington — have gone postcard only.

Flikshop was ready for the switch.

The reason why administrators restrict the ways inmates can talk to people on the outside isn’t cruelty (although that’s part of it); it’s the cupidity of private corporations. Canceling visits redirects people to pay-per video visits. Instead of guards opening the mail and searching it for contraband, some prisons have privatized mail delivery. A company in Florida receives it, scans it, and forwards it back to the prison where it’s delivered to the recipient electronically and the inmate has to pay prison predator JPay to access it. The same is done to the postcards even though they pose no threat.

While the studies examining the effect of communications in any form on recidivism are clear — visits, phone calls, and letters reduce the chance of reoffending — advocates may give too much credit to phone calls/letters/visits. Communication with people outside means aid awaits those prisoners when they’re released. When discharged from custody, they’re the ones who have the best chances of staying out because they have concerned parties to buoy them. In short, it’s not the communication; it’s the source of the communication — and the material support they offer on release — that reduces re-offending.

No matter how much one credits the studies demonstrating that visits lower recidivism, the upshot is that calls, cards, and visits send the message that someone matters. That can be transformative by itself.

But the real reason why removing or restricting connections can complicate rehabilitation is that these chats and notes expand a prisoner’s worldview. Institutionalization pounds a victim mentality into perpetrators. Many of them are victims, but a plaintive undertow permeates a prison and drags inmates under. Confined persons recycle the same conversations; complaining becomes recreation. I can’t say connections give hope but they do give respite from a damaging, downer culture.

Especially since they were one of the only options for quick communications during the pandemic, Flikshop’s postcards have become the perfect paper peepholes to the outside.

Flikshop developed an “Angel” system that allows anyone — volunteer cupids, if you will — to purchase Flikshop credits for families who can’t afford them, as reasonably priced as they are. As of February 1, 2022, eight signed up to be Angels. Flikshop wants to connect 100,000 families. To date, they’ve distributed 5520 credits using Angel contributions.

The average adult in the United States spends $175 on Valentine's presents and cards, a number guaranteed a pump from inflation and the supply-chain chokehold on heart-shaped boxes this year. Flikshop postcards are the cheapest Valentine’s greetings anyone can buy. If Cupid overlooked you, take over and draw back your bows: at Flikshop, ten bucks puts an arrow through the heart of alienation.

Click here to sign up to be a Flikshop Angel.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

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