Antoine Patton is a father from Ft. Myers, Florida, who taught himself how to code while he served time in prison. After his release in 2014, Patton set his sights on teaching his then 10-year-old daughter Jay Jay all of his new technical skills. Together they created Photo Patch, a free app that allows children to send letters, postcards, photos and drawings to their incarcerated parents. 

Patton, 32, was named a 2019 Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellow, an honor that includes “seed funding of up to $90,000, training and programmatic support for two years, as well as lifelong access to Echoing Green’s global network of leading philanthropists, investors and entrepreneurs,” according to the group’s emailed statement about this year’s honorees. The organization connects with emerging leaders in the social innovation space and aims to set them on a path to lifelong impact. Past fellows include former First Lady Michelle Obama and activist Van Jones.

Colorlines talked to Patton about his fellowship, which supports leaders dedicated to improving the life outcomes of Black men and boys in the United States. He opened up about his daughter’s excitement around their work and why his dream is for the app they created to become obsolete.

Why did you want to learn coding while you were in prison?

While incarcerated I became an eager reader, an avid self-developer and a truth-seeker. After reading an article about the explosion of mobile apps in 2010, I put myself to the test. I pushed myself on a journey to teach myself how to code. I knew it was audacious because I never had any experience with software development, I didn’t have access to the internet and the Windows XP computers I did have access to were over a decade old. But I had courage, curiosity and a coding book on HTML and JavaScript. I became addicted to reading the tech articles in every newspaper or magazine I could get my hands on. [I wasn’t just] learning about software development, but also what it means to be a tech entrepreneur, a disruptor and, most interesting to me, a problem solver.

Was it always your intention to share those lessons with your daughter?

Reuniting with my daughter in November of 2014 was what I wanted more than anything. But her deciding that she wanted to learn how to code was a super surreal bonus that I could not have predicted. She would watch me code for hours upon hours and her natural childlike curiosity impelled her to adamantly and persistently ask me to teach her about code and what she could do once she learned the skill.

How did you come up with the idea for Photo Patch? 

The biggest problem I wanted to solve was the communication gap between prisoners and their loved ones. I vividly remember receiving a Christmas card from my daughter a couple of days before Valentine’s Day. Jay Jay’s letters and photos often took three months or more to arrive because of the added steps of getting envelopes, stamps and printing of pictures. In the age of phone calls and text messaging, of course, this 5-year old girl needed the help of an adult to send out snail mail. I knew if I was yearning for more connection with my child, there had to be thousands, if not millions, of other parents and children suffering from the same communication gap.

Why is Photo Patch so crucial for families dealing with incarceration? 

At Photo Patch we connect families. Using our mobile app—built by my daughter Jay Jay Patton when she was just 12 years old—a family member can easily send love, updates or just raw thoughts to their incarcerated loved ones. The user, whether it’s a child, guardian, social worker or mentor, can log in, write a letter (or help the child do so) and attach pictures. Our team will print everything out and mail it to the prison all within 24 hours. We wanted a fast, convenient and free way for children to send letters, photos and postcards to their mom or dad serving time in county, state or federal penal institutions hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away. I knew from experience that those letters and those photos were instrumental in patching wounds of regret, loneliness, fear and other pains caused by distance and disconnect. Photo Patch now serves as a true lifeline to those on the inside. We’ve been able to connect over 20,000 people to their loved ones.

How did you come to apply for the fellowship you eventually won? 

Being incarcerated for almost eight years is in a lot of ways synonymous with living under a rock. Up until one week before I applied for the Echoing Green Fellowship, I had no idea who Echoing Green was or what they did. While networking on a random three-way call with a new business associate, I told him about our work at Photo Patch and he suggested that we apply to become a part of Echoing Green. He was an alum fellow that validated that the EG community is unmatched in supporting social entrepreneurs.

And how did you and your daughter respond to the news that you would be one of the organization’s fellows?

Seven months later, when I received the news that I would be granted the fellowship, my breath was taken away. I was elated because this was the longest application process I had ever gone through and to come out on top made me feel proud and confirmed I was headed in the right direction. It’s a great feeling to have a community of genuine thought partners enthusiastic about helping your organization with a major focus on you as an individual. When Jay Jay learned that I won the fellowship I saw her eyes light up with admiration. She always supported me, but the victories and momentum we have been experiencing in the past couple of years were becoming more and more exciting to her. She really loves the work that we do and every chance she gets she wants to be on the front lines with me, whether that’s building the app, attending an important, yet boring conference, or working directly with youth in our local community who have been impacted by incarceration.

What is your dream for the future of Photo Patch?

In a dream future, there will be no need for Photo Patch. In a dream future, our society will find better ways to discipline people for crimes such that communication with your loved ones is not seen as a privilege and instead seen as a crucial tool during the rehabilitation process. In a dream future, Photo Patch will be known as being on the front lines for helping eradicate exorbitant costs involved with sending emails to incarcerated loved ones, accepting phone calls from incarcerated loved ones, accepting video calls from incarcerated loved ones, and traveling miles and miles to visit incarcerated loved ones. Instead of focusing so much energy on connecting families, we will be able to put more resources into providing opportunities to at-risk youth so that they don’t fall into the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.