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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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Participants hold placards as they mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington D.C. on January 17, 2022

Washington (AFP) - Members of Martin Luther King Jr's family joined marchers Monday in Washington urging Congress to pass voting rights reform as the United States marked the holiday commemorating the slain civil rights leader.

King's son Martin Luther King III spoke at the march, warning that many states "have passed laws that make it harder to vote" more than half a century after the activism of his father.

The march's message was aimed at boosting support for the Freedom to Vote Act currently before the Senate, and which passed in the House of Representatives last week.

But the bill faces an uphill battle as President Joe Biden negotiates with two holdout senators in his own Democratic Party to change a procedural rule that would allow Congress to pass the law without Republican support.

Biden argues the bill is vital to protecting American democracy against Republican attempts to exclude Black and other predominantly Democratic voters through a spate of recently enacted laws at state and local levels.

Marchers at Monday's Peace Walk echoed demands made by MLK more than 60 years ago as they chanted, "What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want it? Now!"

Many carried posters printed with King's image and his famous 1957 appeal to "Give us the ballot," which called on the federal government to enforce Black Americans' right to vote nationwide, including in the heavily segregated South.

"We march because our voting rights are under attack right now," pastor Reverend Wendy Hamilton told AFP at the demonstration.

"As a matter of fact, our democracy is very fragile," said Hamilton, a local politician in Washington, whose residents themselves do not have full representation in Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Terri Sewell from Alabama and chairwoman Joyce Beatty from Ohio, also spoke at the march -- as did King's 13-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King.

King's daughter Bernice King also took to the social media platform to call for the Senate to pass voting reform.

"If these state voter suppression laws persist, the America my father dreamed about will never come to be," she wrote.

At the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris urged senators to pass the Freedom to Vote Act in honor of King's legacy.

King "pushed for racial justice, for economic justice and for the freedom that unlocks all others: the freedom to vote," she said.

She denounced bills under consideration or already passed in state legislatures that she said could make it harder for 55 million Americans to cast ballots.

"To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all," Harris said.

Biden and Harris last week visited the crypt where King -- who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39 -- and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried in Atlanta.