A Former Inmate Turned Entrepreneur Solves Problems in the Prison System with a Fresh Approach

It is very difficult and expensive for inmates to keep in touch with their loved ones. Yet, studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates. 

Only recently, and mainly due to the popularity of TV shows like Orange Is The New Black, have the problems affecting millions of people in the prison system (2.2 million in the United States) been brought to the attention of the general public. Still, to truly understand the system and be able to solve some of its problems, one would need to actually have experienced it from the inside. Such is the case with Frederick Hutson, a former inmate who secured $1 million in funding for his company Pigeonly and is also joining Y Combinator this winter. 

Hutson has had a knack for business since he was young. At 13, he would go to his neighbors in a Brooklyn high-rise to ask them if they needed small repairs around the apartment. At 19, he launched and later sold a window-tinting business. At 21, he opened a cellphone store. At 24, however, he was arrested and sentenced to 51 months in prison for distributing marijuana, as part of a large operation.

Naturally, going to prison didn’t stop his entrepreneurial inclinations and ability to see and solve problems. In the course of his sentencing, Hutson was moved to four different prisons and quickly noticed one of the biggest problems inmates had to face — keeping in touch with their loved ones.

First, it turned out there was no easy way to locate an inmate. Hutson’s own friend and future co-founder, Alfonzo Brooks, spent two months doing research before he could find Hutson and send him letters. In addition, making phone calls from prison was so expensive that it prohibited many inmates from talking to their friends and families — 300 minutes could cost $70. It was also really difficult to receive photos from the outside, making it hard for inmates to follow the lives of friends and families throughout the years. 

It was frustrating to me how hard it was, and expensive it was for me to keep in touch. It was excruciatingly difficult," says Hutson. "Even though you have family that loves you and cares for you, it’s very hard for people who live in the digital world to stay connected with someone who lives completely in the analog world. It’s easy to send a text message; it’s easy to send an e-mail, but it’s very difficult to take out time to write a hand letter, and what this does is make it difficult for the inmates to maintain these social connections, so when they are released, it’s hard for them to reintegrate.”

Meanwhile, studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates. 

Hutson and Brooks’ company, Pigeonly, which they founded in 2012, helps families connect to their incarcerated loved ones. They have built a comprehensive database that helps customers find federal prisoners in penitentiaries across the U.S. by a simple name search. Their second service, Fotopigeon, allows friends and family members to easily send photos to inmates through their smartphones, computers, and tablets. The company takes care of the printing and shipping of the photos, so they pass through prison mail check. The third service, Telepigeon, is a long-distance call service that gives inmates unlimited minutes for $9.99 a month by creating a local number the prisoner can use.  

Pigeonly's market is big and untapped. According to Hutson, 1 percent of the U.S. population has a loved one who is in prison and he estimates it's a $2 billion market. Despite this, he had hard time finding investors until NewMe, an accelerator, which focuses on entrepreneurs from underrepresented minorities, saw the potential in his business. This underscores the need for Silicon Valley to identify and invest in entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds who may have unique outlooks on problems and their solutions.

Today, Pigeonly is supporting about 2 million minutes a month on the phone calls, and sending a quarter-million photos every month. It employs 16 people, some of them with felony records. 

Photo: Pigeon.ly

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.