Heart emoji and confessions of yearning fill many of the postcards that have been printed by the thousands in a Maryland warehouse in recent days. But if you look closely at them, if you study the pictures on them and read the words they carry, you will recognize they are more than just valentines.
On the back of each, you’ll find the address of one of the nation’s many correctional or detention facilities, and the name of an inmate.
On the front of each, you’ll see photographs and a message from someone outside that facility’s walls who is feeling that inmate’s absence.
“Hi daddy I miss you and love you lots!!” reads one postcard. On it, two pictures show a young girl with wispy blond hair. In one, she stares into the distance. In the other, she smiles from a fuzzy pink jacket with a unicorn horn on its hood. “Nana got me this coat I love it!! I put it on and wore it all day!! the other picture is when I got my ears pierced … I didn’t cry at all!! love you daddy”
On another postcard, a picture of an older couple embracing appears alongside this message: “I got your Valentine’s card today, and as always I just love it baby, you are the best. I love you so much, you can’t even measure it.”
One postcard contains only two words — “Hey Papa” — but the photo says plenty. It shows a tiny baby with a giant white bow.
When we think of Valentine’s Day greetings, we usually picture those cards perched on drugstore shelves organized neatly by sentiment — humorous, romantic, religious — or those pun-filled cards that children give to their classmates.
But this month is also the busiest for Flikshop, a company created by a man who grew up in the Washington area and wanted to find a way to keep families connected with prisoners across the country.
Each postcard costs 99 cents and allows a person to send a few images along with a 300-character-or-less message.
Taken alone, each postcard tells of a mini connection strained by distance and circumstance.
Taken together, they show a web of spouses, children, mothers, fathers, siblings and friends spread across the nation who are trying to keep intact relationships that will benefit inmates once they are released.
The postcards contain birth announcements and death notices. They capture childhood milestones and family gatherings that were missed. They express hope for what will come after that person is released.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in prison, they’re coming home one day,” says Marcus Bullock, who founded Flikshop. “How do we want them to come back to their community? Do you want them to come back to their community saying they hate the world? Or do you want them to come back to their community saying, ‘I want to be a loving, nurturing, productive member?’ ”
He says the company now serves correctional and detention facilities for adults, juveniles and immigrants in all 50 states. This year, the company has seen the largest growth in demand from facilities for women and youths.
For those young people, Bullock says, the postcards allow them to keep up with their friends’ achievements, see pets they are missing and receive regular encouragement from the adults in their lives. He went to prison at the age of 15 for stealing a car at gunpoint with a friend, and he credits his mom’s frequent letters with helping him survive eight years behind bars and then thrive once he was released. Before he came home, he already knew what his bedroom would look like and the names of his mother’s co-workers.
“It creates a level of community you otherwise wouldn’t have,” Bullock says. “Imagine being released without any community whatsoever and someone is telling you, ‘Get back to normal,’ and the only normal you’ve ever known is mayhem.”
People send the postcards throughout the year, with about 14,000 printed on average each month. But the business sees peaks and valleys, and February is not just a peak — it is the peak.
“It’s the number one month, by far,” Bullock says. Come March, he says, “we see an immediate drop-off.”
On a recent morning, his mother, Sylvia Bullock, who works as head of partnerships for the company, places 447 postcards on a table in a conference room in a building in Landover, Md. The postcards have just been printed in an adjoining warehouse and are set to be mailed that day.
I ask her if I can look at them. Soon, I’ve read through one pile and am making my way through another. It’s hard to stop reading once you start because each is an intimate glimpse into a life that was interrupted. So many show how it’s not only the person behind bars who is punished.
“Hey mom!” reads one that depicts a small child with a fake mustache and beard. “I love you so much and hope to see you soon.”
Next to a picture of a girl with glasses and an oversized Luke Bryan shirt appear these words: “Hi There, I found this shirt and gave it to her. Needless to say she was very excited. I told her we can put it on a pillow so she can sleep with it. She was a happy girl. The heat pump went out last week, it’s been a bit chilly in here. Dad bought a TV stand with a fireplace in it. Love ya.”
A postcard that shows a sleeping, swaddled baby with a slight grin and dimple accompanies this message: “Trying to keep our family together. It’s getting hard. I feel alone. I just birthed our son & I need your support & reassurance & im not getting that. Valentines is coming up in case you decide to care. I feel so alone.”
“I find myself praying over some of these,” says Sylvia Bullock, who is also a pastor.
“Me too,” confesses Camille Clark, the company’s chief operating officer.
Clark recently left a financially lucrative position with a consulting firm for the “start-up life,” she says, because she believes in Flikshop’s mission.
“Being a child that could have been forgotten makes me aware of all the forgotten people around us,” she says. “That is the driving purpose of our company — is to make sure people aren’t forgotten.”
While most of the postcards on the table that morning show children’s faces, there are also ones that would fit into different categories if sold on drugstore shelves.
Some feature pets and their imagined voices. “Ruff ruff hurry up mommy come home we love you we miss you and we can’t wait to see you no matter how long it is,” reads one.
Others contain pictures of women in clothing and poses that push the company’s decency boundaries. Sylvia Bullock sometimes has to email people to say Flikshop appreciates them but their postcards could not be sent. The company has a software system that scans in multiple languages for obscenities, gang signs and mentions of drugs.
Then there are those valentines that keep it real, that acknowledge a love that exists despite, not because of, circumstances.
“I wish that I could change everything bad that has happened and make it all good but I just can’t,” reads one. “One thing that won’t change is how I feel about you! You still have my heart!”
“I miss you and I’m sad,” reads another. “I’m still mad at you and I hate you . . . but I love you and days like this I know we both wish you were home so we could enjoy it and make memories.”
And this one: “You suck less than most! Happy Valentine’s Day from your one true Love!”
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