Jay’Aina Patton’s father, Antoine Patton, went to prison for gun possession when she was three years old. Her mother was left to raise two children on her own and didn’t always have the time or money to coordinate visits to Jay’Aina’s father’s prison hours away, or to pay for postage, printed photos, and phone calls.
When Jay Jay, as her friends and family call her, got a chance to write to her dad, she’d describe her day at school or a waterpark trip with her cousin, and the letter would take days to reach him. And then his response would take days to get back to her.
In prison, Antoine Patton cherished every letter. But he always wondered when he might hear from her again.
“I remember thinking, ‘This could be better,’” he said.
This formerly incarcerated father created a site for parents in prison to connect with their children. He and his daughter have now turned the site into an app.
— Dani Kwateng (@danikwateng) May 13, 2020
5.1 million children in the US are currently separated from an incarcerated parent. Often, families are separated across great distances making visits impossible or unaffordable. In the face of these obstacles, incarcerated parents and their children still have a right to stay connected.
Now, thanks to Jay Jay and her dad— there’s an app for that. It’s called Photo Patch, and Jay Jay coded it herself.
The Bard Prison Initiative provides free college courses to incarcerated people in New York prisons. A computer science class on the initiative’s course listing caught Patton’s eye, but he said he was “scared of it.”
“I told myself it wasn’t for me, that only geniuses take those classes,” he said.
But a few months later, after reading up on the explosion mobile apps that were sweeping the world outside prison walls, he sought out more tech news and became interested in coding.
He kicked himself for not signing up for the course but found a computer science textbook in the prison’s computer lab.
Maybe you’ve tried to teach yourself to code and quickly given up? It can be a long and painful process, but Patton was determined.
After nine months he caught a break when he found a teacher in a fellow inmate who knew how to code. He generously offered to tutor Patton provided Patton passed the knowledge onto others.
Jay Jay was 10 when her dad returned home in 2014. Patton was inspired to apply his computer programming skills to an idea he’d dreamt about while he was still behind bars. What if there was a website that could connect prisoners to their families, the outside world, and specifically, their children?
With help from his cousin, he filed paperwork to make the Photo Patch Foundation official.
The website he created enabled children to write letters and upload photos that Patton and his team would print, package, and mail to their incarcerated parent, free of charge.
Prison telecommunications companies are often prohibitively expensive to populations who have no options but to rely on them. Photo Patch offers the service for free in order to make an integral resource available to people who need it. Printing and postage costs are all covered by individual donations, grants, and fundraisers organized by the foundation.
Jay Jay watched her father at work on Photo Patch. She was intrigued by his computer and the mysterious typed language he was using to bring his idea to life. She started asking questions and before long, father and daughter were coding together.
“I was finally bonding with my dad,” Jay Jay said.
Jay Jay realized the next step for Photo Patch was for the service to have its very own mobile app.
“Everybody’s on their phone. It’s way easier for them to take a picture and type a letter right there,” she told her dad.
Proud Patton encouraged his creative and ambitious daughter to try it.
After many hours of trial and error, Jay Jay worked out the tech— getting help from her dad when she was really stuck. Three months later, her first app was born.
The Photo Patch app makes it even easier for kids and their imprisoned parents to share moments and build relationships in an organic way.
The teen’s app has been downloaded over 10,000 times and supports 1,000-2,000 users each month. Because prison visitation rights are frozen amid COVID-19, more and more letters are being composed and shared via the app every day.
Photo Patch makes it possible for incarcerated people to maintain relationships in a way that fosters commitment and stability.
“It sets up expectations for the future,” he said. The child might ask, ‘Hey, when you come home, can we take a trip?” Or, more penetratingly, “Are you not going to go back to prison?”
“No matter where the child or parent is, they should always have a bond, a connection, and be able to talk to each other,” said Jay Jay.
“We know that being able to talk to each other helped our bond a lot. So why not give that same thing for [other] kids and parents?”
Amid the success of their first tech venture, Jay Jay and her dad have launched an initiative to teach others to code. After students graduate from their program, they facilitate internship and job placement at companies around the world.
“We’re just trying to focus on helping people to do things that they don’t think they can,” Jay Jay said.