Captive market: on Frederick Hutson’s revolutionary inmate business

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Thanks to social media, instant messaging, and the internet in general, we’ve come to expect all communication to be immediate and always available. However, there is a substantial group of people – well over two million, in fact – for whom convenient, quick communication is far from obvious.

Inmates in America’s prisons have no internet access, which makes them unreachable from the outside using the fast and easy communication methods that we’re so used to. After serving his own sentence, entrepreneur Frederick Hutson decided that something had to be done to make it easier for friends and family to keep in touch with an incarcerated individual.

Frederick Hutson (Courtesy photo)

This is how Pigeonly, the largest independent provider of inmate communication services, was born. The early version of Hutson’s venture focused on photos – he noticed that these posed the biggest inconvenience, as the person would have to take their phone or camera to a store, develop the images, put them in an envelope, and take them to the post office for sending. His solution? He created a platform, which makes sending a photo to a prisoner as easy as sharing it on social media. Users upload the image onto the website and enter the recipient’s details, and the company takes care of the rest – developing the image, placing it in an appropriate, plain envelope, and sending it to the right facility.

Over the years, as Pigeonly gathered momentum – and funds – the company’s services kept expanding. Users can paste in text that the company prints and sends as a letter, or enter a link to a website – the Pigeonly staff will print the contents of the site and send them to the inmate. Using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), Pigeonly can also offer prison calls that are much cheaper than usual. The platform also features the first centralized national inmate database, which Hutson believed to be necessary for families to be able to keep track of an inmate’s location. Despite the odds being stacked against him in the beginning, Hutson used his experience to build a successful company that has raised almost $7 million to date.

For many people in U.S. prisons, the services offered by Hutson’s company are life-changing. “Isolation is the worst thing for an inmate,” says Hutson. “It makes it hard for him to rebuild his life when he gets out.” Studies show that maintaining contact with friends and family while in prison dramatically decreases the likelihood of recidivism, not to mention the fact that we all need human contact and a reminder that we’re important to others, regardless of the situation.

Pigeonly is not Hutson’s first venture – a born entrepreneur, he was already setting up his own businesses in high school, fixing fans and fridges and later tinting windows. He opened and then successfully sold a cellphone store, before becoming involved in a marijuana trafficking business. Although gaining investors’ trust wasn’t easy at first, it didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Pigeonly is not only a profitable venture, but also a desperately needed service for thousands of people in U.S. prisons and their families outside.