05/23/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Vet Is Helping Inmates Stay Connected With Their Families After Being Behind Bars Himself

You could call Frederick Hutson an overachiever.

After graduating from high school, Huston served honorably as a F-16 Avionics Electrician in the U.S. Air Force for almost three years. When he was just 19 years old, he launched a window tinting business, and two years after that, a cell phone store, according to ABC News. Both times, he turned a profit.

But after his early achievements, Huston's pathway to success hit a major roadblock.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, he joined his friend's marijuana trafficking business, and was caught by authorities in 2008. Hutson was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.

"It is probably one of the most disruptive experiences ever," he told ABC News of his time spent behind bars. "You go from having control over what time you get up, what time you eat, when you sleep, where you sleep, who you sleep next to and not having control of anything."

Throughout his time in prison, Hutson realized how truly difficult and expensive it is to stay in touch with loved ones when behind bars. In a digital, 21st century world, it's easy to keep in touch -- but that's not an option when an individual is incarcerated.

"It is easier to send a text message, an email but is very difficult to write a hand letter and print photos and head to the post office to mail it," he said.

Hutson told the Tampa Bay Times that when an inmate is locked up, it costs about $70 a month to use 300 phone minutes. Along with that hefty price tag, keeping in touch from behind bars is made even more challenging when inmates are constantly moved to and from various facilities, leaving loved ones on the outside without knowledge of an accurate address where mail can be sent.

The difficulty to communicate isn't just an inconvenience to inmates and their loved ones. The Federal Communications Commission noted last year in a statement that inmates who maintain contact with family while in prison are more likely to become productive citizens upon their release.

Always having an entrepreneurial spirit, Huston's mind began blossoming with ideas to fix this problem. He left prison in March 2012 and teamed up with former U.S. Air Force veteran Alfonzo Brooks to make his business venture a reality. However he thought his criminal background might be a hindrance to attracting investors who believed in the idea.

That wasn't the case.

"I thought my record would prevent people from doing business with us, but it was just the opposite," Hutson told the New York Times last November, recalling an interaction he'd had with a potential partner who'd asked Hutson how he knew so much about the experience of an inmate. "I had domain expertise."

Hutson hired an engineer to build software that could index all public records related to court or criminal information. At that point, Hutson could organize the data and identify who was currently incarcerated. Using the information he'd gathered with the engineer's help, Hutson sent marketing materials to 10,000 inmates telling them about his company, Pigeonly.

Pigeonly offers its users two valuable resources. The first, Fotopigeon, is a service that provides families the ability to easily and affordably deliver hard copies of photos to inmates -- even as the inmates are transient. Another service through the platform, Telepigeon, provides families of inmates a low-cost solution to expensive long-distance phone calls. Hutson told the New York Times that Telepigeon can reduce the per-minute rate of an inmate's phone call from 23 cents to just to 6 cents because of Pigeonly's partnerships with Internet phone-service providers.

Today, Pigeonly employs ten people in its Las Vegas-based office.

"We have people that haven’t seen their kids in years, haven’t seen their mother in years, and then they use our service and can receive photos and make those important phone calls," Hutson told ABC News. "It gives me a lot of satisfaction that every day we are solving pain points with people."

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