Life without readily available cell, text and email communication is unimaginable for most of us. But for people who are incarcerated, those basic tools that connect us to friends and loved ones are either sporadically available, expensive or both. Losing the links to the outside world can make it more difficult for people to successfully regain their footing after release from prison or jail.
Corrio, a Bellevue, Wash.-based telecommunications startup, is trying to mend that disconnect. Corrio offers a monthly subscription that provides incarcerated people with a phone number that can accept and send voice messages to people outside of prison.
“Because schedules never line up [for in-person calls] and life happens in moments, people on the inside connect to people on the outside by sharing those moments by voice messages,” said Corrio founder and CEO Alex Peder. Incarcerated people can also receive texts that are translated into voice messages.
Most of the exchanges are quick — letting someone know if they can make a visit, offering a happy birthday wish — lasting less than a minute.
“It makes all the difference from feeling included or excluded while you’re incarcerated,” Peder said.
The problem of costly prison communications was documented earlier this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. The national report found that in Washington, the average cost of a 15-minute call from a local jail cost nearly $6.
Peder’s mission is to shrink those costs, improve access and reduce recidivism by strengthening incarcerated people’s bonds with their support system. Currently 34 percent of people released from prison in Washington become incarcerated again within three years, according to the state Department of Corrections. Academic research shows that “social support” such as phone calls, visits and letters can reduce inmate misconduct and recidivism.
Peder’s personal experience inspired him to create Corrio.
“I made the biggest mistake of my life in 2010,” he said. Peder drank and drove, resulting in a collision that killed two people and at age 50, sent him to prison for five years.
Before incarceration, Peder had a 25-year career in telecommunications and technology. He was president and co-founder of X10 Wireless Technology, a Seattle-based pioneer in home automation and security products and services. One of his first jobs was co-founder of Ballard Computer, a seminal Northwest computer retailer. He had two kids in elementary and high school when he went to prison.
“I felt like that was the end of the world, and maybe rightfully so. What I did destroyed some other people’s lives, and not just the people who died,” Peder said. “But I couldn’t stop there. I did my time. And along the way, I looked for ways to make the time productive.”
He took college courses and in 2017, two years after his release, Peder launched Corrio. Sam Baker is Corrio’s co-founder and chief technology officer.
Corrio charges $5.95 a month to provide an incarcerated person a number from which they can make calls and receive messages. Messages generally cost around $0.25-to-$0.50 each, depending on their length. Some of the cost includes the fee for getting a dial tone that’s charged by private contractors outside of Corrio’s control.
The jail telecom sector is currently dominated by two big players, GTL and Securus, as well as some smaller enterprises.
Peder is developing additional services for Corrio. That includes a system for incarcerated people battling drug and alcohol addiction to connect with sponsors from Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, and a platform for depositing money into accounts held by incarcerated people for purchases such as hygiene products and phone time.
We caught up with Peder for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Corrio is a first-of-its-kind telecommunications platform and social purpose corporation that makes it easier for incarcerated people to remain in contact with family, friends and other connections on the outside. Its patented technology does this by giving incarcerated people the opportunity to participate in two-way automated messaging and call services at any time of day.
Inspiration hit us when: I came up with the idea while incarcerated at a prison in Washington state. I found it extremely challenging to keep in contact with my family, specifically my two children, as not only was the phone system decades behind the outside, coordinating a time to speak with family was near impossible. From there the idea for Corrio was born.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Corrio is a bootstrapped, self-funded social purpose corporation.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: The fact I experienced this communication issue firsthand. I struggled to stay connected with my family, so I know all too well how behind the system is and how desperately the system needs modernizing. Corrio is taking those steps in order to provide basic rights for incarcerated people and their families.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Deciding to do a lengthy beta test before officially launching in order to make sure Corrio’s technology was fully functioning. After successfully engaging more than 600 inmates in prisons, jails and detention centers across the U.S. we officially launched in June.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Getting caught up in our passion and thinking that change would happen overnight. The criminal justice system is complex and with much of it privatized, it creates a huge barrier for change. We are having this conversation with lots of people in government as well as the general public to bring awareness to this issue.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? David Israel is also a formerly incarcerated person turned entrepreneur. He came up with the idea for the snack company Pop Gourmet while in a Washington state prison. It’s now a wildly successful company with more than 100 employees and distributes its products nationwide.
Our favorite team-building activity is: As we’re a very small company, much of what we do is collaborative in nature and feels like team-building! Creating something completely new and from the ground up is rewarding in its own right, but creating a company with a social mission that helps people is also immensely satisfying both individually and to the team.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Dedication to the cause. As people who know the prison system inside and out, we know this may not be for everyone. Fighting for prisoner rights definitely takes a certain dedication and passion.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Keep reminding yourself about your mission and why you’re doing this. When trying to initiate change there will be many low points and roadblocks. Remind yourself of the good you are putting out in the world and the fight to make people’s lives better. This will keep you focused.
Editor’s note: In 2016, Peder was charged with violating a condition of his parole that required him to use an interlock alcohol testing device in his car. Prosecutors said he was instead primarily using a work vehicle that lacked the device. The case is still pending, and Peder said that he had an exemption from the Washington State Department of Licensing to drive the work vehicle. In an interview with GeekWire, Peder said that he is not using alcohol or drugs, and is living “a clean and sober lifestyle.”