Leaning over his laptop, Alex Peder squints at the long list of messages lined up on his screen. He scrolls, considers, then clicks on one and turns up the volume.
For about two minutes, a voicemail plays; it’s a woman rapping the lyrics of a Christmas song she wrote for her incarcerated brother. She sings the final chorus, pauses, and tells him she loves and misses him, and that she hopes one day he’ll be back to celebrate the holiday together with family.
The voicemail ends, and Peder looks up, moved. The message’s emotion — and the fact that the person it was meant for could listen to it over and over, as many times as he wanted — is the driving force behind Peder’s development of Corrio, the Bellevue-based company that makes the leaving of that message possible.
“When you’re incarcerated, the system is not set up in a way that you can leave a voicemail for someone, or receive one,” Peder said. “But most people aren’t just always ready to take a phone call. So, there are these obstacles and inconveniences to communicating with loved ones when you’re in prison, which can lead to isolation and loss of hope.”
Peder knows this from personal experience: He spent five years in prison after, at 50 years old and with alcohol in his system, he was involved in a car accident that killed two people. Uprooted from his stable life as a married father with two kids and a steady job, the guilt- and shock-wracked Peder suddenly found himself as an inmate.
“I hadn’t even been convicted yet, and I was sitting there in King County jail trying to make calls, but I couldn’t leave a message, couldn’t receive a message,” Peder said. “My kids, you know, they don’t actually use the phone — they text. I couldn’t get a message to them.”
Once he had been convicted and transferred to Monroe Correctional Complex, Peder faced the same problem: Calls at Monroe, he said, could be made only from a bank of six phones, with no walls in between — and if the person on the other end didn’t pick up, there was nothing to be done. And there was no way to receive a message — even something as simple as an “I miss you.” Peder said he and those around him found this incredibly frustrating.
“You have to have communication with people you love in order to have hope, in order to make it through,” he said. “And once someone is released, too — if you haven’t maintained that network of friends and family who will hold you accountable, who will help you with the re-entry process? You’ll probably end up right back in prison.”
Peder’s point holds merit. According to the National Institute of Justice, 44 percent of those released from prison are arrested at least once in the following year, and 83 percent within nine years. One of the most important measures in reducing recidivism — among other rehabilitative programs, like the offering of college classes — is providing access to family communication. A study published by the Vera Institute in October 2012 found that, “Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release.”
44% of those released from prison are arrested at least once in the following year.
83% of those released from prison are arrested at least once within nine years.
Source: The National Institute of Justice
Peder felt this need acutely as he began his five-year sentence and saw the barriers for maintaining consistent and healthy communication to be too high and too unreliable. He started conceptualizing a voicemail system that could be used by prison phones across the country that would allow for people to call a number and hear a message left by a loved one, as well as for people on the outside to send “texts” that would be read on the voicemail by a digital voice system.
Such a system is developed to operate and co-exist with the current system, Peder said, not to replace, circumvent, or undermine any safety protocols commonly used by correctional facilities. As such, calls made through Corrio — as all calls made from prison — are recorded and available to the public by FOIA or state public records act requests.
To get started on conceptualizing how to bring to life a compliant and safe system to connect people, Peder worked with a developer friend on the outside.
“My friend Eric Juvet, who had experience with incarceration through a family member of his, would come visit me, and we would literally write on napkins what we thought would work,” said Peder, who noted that when someone has a family member in prison, that person also “does the time.” Juvet would take the napkins from their meetings and continue to work on making the technology possible.
“I was my own customer,” said Peder, who was able to start discreetly using the technology two years into his sentence. Operating in Beta mode as the Voice Freedom Calls Project — and not launching officially as Corrio until after his May 2015 release date — Peder and Juvet together figured out how to connect the private network in the prison to the public switch network, a method that future business partner Sam Baker helped expand into a nonprovisional utility patent.
Once the basic logistics were worked out, Peder said having access to a voicemail system to communicate with his family, specifically with his kids, was a game-changer.
“There suddenly wasn’t an obstacle for us,” he said. “My kids could receive messages as they needed to receive them and respond as they needed to respond. It helped a huge amount.”
Right now, the company’s 400 national individual customers — those who have an incarcerated loved one — primarily use Corrio for just that: keeping in touch, be that a quick message sent via text by someone on the outside that is then translated into a message read on an accessible voicemail box from the inside, or a personal song rapped into a phone’s speaker on a holiday.
But Peder and Baker, the software engineer who took over as the programming half of the business when Juvet stepped away in 2014, envision their tool as useful for much more than that.
“We think that Corrio can be used to enable the delivery of mental behavioral healthcare: People on the inside can (have exchanges) with a therapist or counselor, and perhaps in the future, an AI-powered chat bot,” Peder said.
This capability has the potential to especially support those who participate in recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous because it could give them access to a mentor outside prison who could leave encouraging messages and give feedback: an essential piece that makes such programs more successful.
Peder and Baker are seeking seed funding to continue to expand Corrio’s capabilities; in the time being, however, the simple voicemail capabilities remain extremely powerful.
“Just receiving one message — ‘I love you; I’ll be visiting soon,’ is so significant,” Peder said. “Getting a message like that makes you feel fantastic, which in turn just adds to the safety and security of an institution. It might not seem like much, but trust me: To those who need it, it’s gigantic.”