Before Walter Price’s cousin died in a Baltimore City jail, Price remembers hearing from him. “One of last things he said to me was, ‘I feel like I was forgotten,'” Price said.
While serving his own 10-year sentence at Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown, Md., Price saw how hearing from family and friends helped inmates maintain a connection. The Baltimore native had been an entrepreneur before with a towing company and mobile car wash, and saw the potential to help others.
“When I came out, I was determined to do something for that community,” he said.
But even as he saw the entrepreneurship spurred by the app economy, the letter from his cousin stayed with him. With letters still the primary way to communicate with inmates, but he found a way to use technology to make the process easier — with Jail Mail.
The app provides family members an easier way to stay in touch, with a space to type a letter or upload pictures that can be sent to someone in prison. Jail Mail then provides printing and shipping service. For now, that involves Price printing and mailing the letters himself.
The company, which is called NotForgotten, started distribution of Jail Mail in Maryland in 2011, but has since expanded. “It’s in every state now,” Price said, adding that people from other countries can also ship into U.S. prisons through the service.
The company makes money through in-app purchases like letters and postcards. The market research part of product development draws directly from Price’s experience in prison, but as far as building the app and starting a business, Price has picked up some other help along the way. He studied computer information systems at the University of Baltimore. An offshore team works on programming and designing the app.
In January, Price met Peter Parker, who has a background in project management. He is now working on marketing and strategy efforts for the company as it looks to scale the business. Over the last year, the two also moved into an office in the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship in Columbia.
After collecting user feedback, Jail Mail recently released new versions of iOS and iPad apps. The new version, which is the first in three years, reduces the number of clicks to send an item, and has built-in customer support and analytics. There is also a feature that shows what communications people previously sent. Price says the company is especially focusing on customer support.
Since the app launched, some potential competitors have come on the scene, like Pigeonly and ConnectInmate. By honing in on the customers’ needs, they feel they can keep the customers they already have. Price has also talked to many of the customers directly, offering support during their time away from loved ones that he understands very well.
“The majority of our customers are repeat customers. Some of them have been with us for years,” Price said.
A photo posted by Jail Mail (@jail_mail_app) on
With recidivism rates high in the U.S., Price said he has seen that keeping in touch can keep people from taking the steps that would lead to committing another crime once they are released.
“We need to find a way to rehabilitate people and show we still support them,” Parker said.
A host of prison studies back that up, saying that inmates with more family communication are less likely to commit another crime after they get out. Price met a lot of people in prison, but said he saw the anger in inmates that were more isolated. Along with keeping up with developments in family life and the larger world, the communication helps to show that there is opportunity awaiting after release.
“It doesn’t mean that your entire life is ruined,” Price said.