A social startup supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures programme at Cambridge Judge Business School helps prisoners communicate with friends and families – and hopefully cut reoffending rates.
Many of us today can’t imagine our lives without mobile phones and other technology that keeps us in touch with family and friends. But what would happen if one day we or a loved-one weren’t allowed to use such devices?
Two entrepreneurs looked at prisoners and the difficulties they face staying in touch with their families – and came up with an innovative solution based on a prison’s own phone system. That venture, Prison Voicemail, was one of 12 finalists in the Pitch@Palace 6.0 competition organised by HRH The Duke of York, and has pitched in the prestigious competition at St. James’s Palace on 2 November. The startup’s co-founders also had a chance to meet and have a few words with Her Majesty The Queen at the event.
Based in Norwich, Prison Voicemail was launched last year by Kieran Ball and Alex Redston – and is now installed in 85 of the 123 prisons in England and Wales. The duo met at a Norwich technology talk and began discussing business ideas in telecommunications.
“We were thinking about people who have restricted access to technology and how we could help them, and eventually arrived at prisoners and their families,” says Kieran. “Research shows that prisoners who are able to maintain contact or build better relationships with their families are less likely to reoffend and we hope our service will facilitate this.”
Prison Voicemail works like this: relatives sign up for the subscription service and are provided with a unique voicemail number which is approved by the prison staff. Afterwards family and friends call the number and leave a message for a prisoner at any time. Then the prisoner dials the same number to listen to the messages and can leave a reply message at the end.
“It gives families and prisoners more flexibility,” Kieran says. “We have visited prisons and noticed that during the day the phones are not used because family and friends are usually working and wouldn’t be able to answer their phones. But in the evening there is a big queue – as many as 50 prisoners might be waiting to use couple of phones.”
The service is designed to be easy to use and affordable, costing either £5 per month for up to 25 messages or £10 per month for up to 75 messages. It doesn’t require any special hardware, as it works with current phone facilities available in the prisons.
One of the biggest challenges at the beginning was to make contact with the first institution. “We asked some families of prisoners if they would use the service and received an overwhelmingly positive response,” says Kieran. “After this we knew our idea would make a difference, but to actually get it into a prison was challenging.”
Luckily, a tweet to a prison governor broke the ice. After a few months of discussions and meetings, the Prison Voicemail service was launched in Lincoln prison in October 2015.
Feedback so far has been very positive, with many families saying it has changed the way they communicate with their loved one.
One service user, whose son is in Rochester prison, said: “It has transformed the way I can contact my son, just knowing that I can leave him a message of support, gives my wife and I great comfort, brilliant.”
Going forward, one of the venture’s biggest challenges is increasing adoption and raising awareness among prisoners and families – so the company is reaching out through prison charities and other avenues, including National Prison Radio.
Paul Baker, the prison service’s Deputy Director of Custody for London and Thames Valley, says: “Prison Voicemail helps governors meet their objective of strengthening family links and means a prisoner isn’t dependent upon having the partner sit by the phone to hear their voice. It also means a reduction in prisoner anxiety without burdening staff.”
With backgrounds in social impact, technology platforms, financial services, information systems and security, Kieran and Alex sought to learn more about social aspects of the venture and other practicalities such as legal structure – and that’s why they applied to Cambridge Social Ventures for training and networking.
Mark Goodson from Cambridge Social Ventures is mentoring the startup. He said:
“Prison Voicemail have identified a clear and pressing social need and addressed it with a high impact technology solution and sustainable business model. The service enables prisoners and family members to communicate despite limited access to phones within prisons.
One of the main challenges to social ventures like this is to develop a robust business model in order to ensure a long-term impact. In addition to this, Prison Voicemail team have to adopt different marketing tools, such as direct sales approach with UK prison authorities and more recently – specialist media like prison newspapers and radio.”
This article is part of Venturing Forth, our new series on the aspirations and challenges of ventures connected to students, alumni and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School.