This dad learned to code in jail, now he's connecting other prisoners to their kids

The day before Valentine's Day 2011, inmate Antoine Patton finally got a Christmas card from his young daughter, Jay Jay.

Normally, it might have taken just a few days for the card to make its way from Florida to New York, even during the holiday rush. But Jay Jay's mom, a busy single mother, had to find the time to print photos and get the card, enclosed in an envelope decorated with hearts, in the mail. Then that envelope had to make its way through the prison mail system and screeners at the New York state facility where Patton was serving seven years for illegal possession of a weapon.

This two-month delay is just one example of how hard it can be for kids (or anyone) to communicate with incarcerated loved ones. The difficulties of staying in contact with his daughter spurred Patton, while still serving his sentence, to learn to code. In prison, he came up with an idea for a service to make it easier for kids to contact parents serving sentences.

Now, five years after his release, the 32-year-old is the founder and executive director of his organization, Photo Patch. Jay Jay, now 14 and reunited with her dad, holds the title of junior director and even built the mobile app herself.

"We just want to make sure these kids have a good relationship with their parents and stay positive," Jay Jay said, "because if you don't stay positive, that's when everything goes downhill."

Staying connected

Photo Patch lets kids write letters and upload photos. An algorithm checks for content screeners might not like -- profanity, for example, or a hand gesture that looks like a gang sign. The organization handles everything else. It's free and available on Android and iOS.

"We believe communication is a right," Patton said.

While a service like Photo Patch can help kids keep their parents updated on everyday life, there's something much bigger at work than just making sure mom or dad knows about the school play.

More than 5 million children in the US have had a parent in either a state or federal prison, according to a 2016 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization focused on improving the well-being of children in the US. Lindsey Cramer, research associate at Washington DC think tankĀ Urban Institute, said familial communication can have a pivotal effect on both parent and child. For kids, there can be anxiety and uncertainty about what's going on with their parent -- questions about where they are and if they're safe. Parents can also benefit from staying in touch with their kids.

"If incarcerated parents have that continued contact and communication, they're less likely to have incidents of misconduct on the inside, they're less likely to recidivate once they're released," Cramer said. "It can help mitigate the trauma a child experiences when a parent is incarcerated."

Coding a future

When Patton went to prison in 2008, he owned a Razr flip phone. In 2010, he started reading articles about how technology, particularly mobile, was changing everything. He read that the best apps out there were the ones that solved a problem for people.

Keeping in contact with Jay Jay? That was a problem. Rules differ from facility to facility, but letters can get held up or bounced back if screeners find something potentially objectionable. Email, if available, might cost 50 cents to send and another 50 cents to receive. Phone calls can cost $1 per minute, and not every family can afford the expense.

But if Patton was going to use tech to break down the communication barriers between parents and kids, he was going to have to learn to code.

He'd passed on the chance previously. Bard College in New York has a long-running program with six prisons in the area to offer degrees to inmates, and when a professor had offered a web development course, Patton didn't think it was for him.

"I was like, 'Nope, I'll pass, this is only for geniuses, I don't want to touch it,'" he said. (Patton eventually earned a liberal arts associate degree.)

When he did decide to learn to code, he used a book on the programming language Java Script a professor had brought in.

He spent every available chunk of the day in between meals studying and practicing code. If he was in his cell, he'd read the book. Otherwise he had access to a computer lab with a broad view of the prison yard. As he typed and worked he could see barbed wire, inmates playing chess, walking around. "Typical jail stuff you see in the movies," he said explained.

"I don't know how I stuck with it," he said. "It was something pulling me."

After about nine months of going it alone, Patton enlisted the help and mentorship of another man in the prison who had a computer science background. The man made Patton promise he'd teach other people to code too and, within a year, Patton was competent enough to start teaching the skill to other folks in the prison.

In southern Florida, Patton's cousin Greg Bryant (now operations director of Photo Patch) had a standing appointment to talk with him every Sunday. The pair, only a year apart in age, went to elementary school together in Buffalo, New York, before Bryant's family moved to Georgia. Still, they got to see each other every summer and every Christmas. When Patton was incarcerated years later, Bryant mailed him letters frequently and spoke with him weekly.

"He's the big brother I never had," Bryant said.

Patton sent Bryant a business plan for Photo Patch. Bryant, having been the child of an incarcerated parent himself, thought the app sounded like a no-brainer.

He spent the week researching and waiting for his cousin's call, so they could discuss a next move.

"It was very hard not being able to call him when I found out something interesting that we both should know," he said. "But we made it work."

When Patton got out, they spent New Year's 2014 researching how to file for nonprofit status.

Passing it on

These days, Photo Patch is working on version 2 of its mobile app, which has racked up about 25,000 users since it launched in 2018. Patton and crew hired a grant writer, and they're always on the lookout for individual and corporate donations to keep Photo Patch running.

Aside from Photo Patch, Patton also started an online coding website called Unlock Academy, honoring his promise to his mentor in prison to teach others to code. Patton wanted to teach 2,020 people how to code by the end of 2020, but ended up with about 10,000 signups within the first three months of the site alone. Unlock Academy charges $40 per month for materials covering the fundamentals of computers, basic coding, how to interview, how to blend into startup culture and even help finding an internship.

Friend and former boss Jason Dolle describes him as someone who's got a lot going on.

"He can speak, he's got a passion for the charity, he's got his own app, he raps, he's got a code school ... everything he does, he doesn't do it half-heartedly, it's all in, and he succeeds at it," Dolle said. A startup founder himself, he's volunteered to help with the events Photo Patch holds where they teach kids of incarcerated parents about skills like photography and coding. "Whatever he's passionate about, the enthusiasm is contagious and it draws people in to help."

The way Patton puts it, he's always been the kind of person who wakes up early and goes to bed late. And though that drive is what's helped him find success, in some ways, it's what got him in trouble fresh out of high school.

"The biggest thing that led to me going to prison was I tried to make money and get my family out of the 'hood and do something better for them," he said. "I was working a job. I was selling drugs. I was busy. I was always busy."

Home again

While there's no exorcising Patton's incarceration from his story, Photo Patch has helped him and Jay Jay deal with it.

"It was a tool to make the past a small memory, and not something that makes us sad every time we think about it," he said.

When Patton got home, Jay Jay was interested in what her dad was doing on his computer, so he taught her to code. Eventually she built the mobile version of Photo Patch, and she still maintains it. As part of the organization's outreach, she teaches a youth coding course for kids 8 to 15 years old on how to build websites.

Aside from working together, the dad and daughter like to watch movies together and discuss them. And coding isn't the only shared passion. Patton built a recording studio in their house since he likes to write rap and hip-hop as a creative, therapeutic outlet. Now the pair also writes and records together. Mostly, Patton says they enjoy just being goofy together.

All that communication has been vital for Jay Jay, who says she can tell her dad anything.

"I never really knew my dad, but I've always loved him," Jay Jay said. "So once he came home and I was able to do things with him, and work alongside him, it was even more amazing."