Billion dollar companies are making millions on the prison communication industry, primarily off of low-income families who wish to stay in touch with an incarcerated loved one.
Ameelio, a web-based communication nonprofit, launched an app giving families free online communication services to keep families and their loved ones connected.
“There are billion dollar companies that are profiting off of vulnerable and justice impacted people,” said cofounder Uzoma Orchingwa to SQ News. “So we founded the nonprofit to usher in more innovation to help families that are impacted and are being exploited.”
The web-based app provides letter writing, pictures and pre-made postcard services. Users can type letters on the website or the app. The text is then sent to a third service that prints and sends the letters, pictures or postcard to the incarcerated friend or family member.
The postcards are funny and inspirational. Some of them have interactive games on the back that incarcerated people can pass the time with.
“We were reading a lot of news about prisoners being on lockdown (due to COVID) and the lack of families being able to reach their loved ones,” said Orchingwa. “So we felt the need that our tool (platform) was going to be essential during this time.”
“Ameelio” comes from the word “ameliorate,” meaning “to make things better,” said Gabriel Saruhashi, cofounder of the company with Orchingwa, to the Yale Daily News.
Ameelio is made up of Yale, Harvard, and MIT college students who engineer and develop the technology. The company services have helped more than 50,000 people connect with their imprisoned loved ones throughout the United States.
“This is a good thing to offer people with loved ones locked away,” wrote Gene, a user on the website, according to the Yale News. “I’m 75 and have palsy in my hands… so writing is very hard for me but even harder for my son to decipher. My thanks to the good folks who provide this free service.”
Orchingwa studied mass incarceration and U.S. penal policy at the University of Cambridge and is currently on leave from Yale Law School. Ameelio is his way to contribute to criminal justice reform.
“A number of my friends were incarcerated,” said Orchingwa to SQ News. “That really drove me to better understand this problem and try and figure out how we can solve it on a political level. I’m really passionate about this issue.”
“I realized that the policy solution would take a long time to come to fruition. I figure I can have more impact in the immediate term. While folks are working on sentencing reduction or addressing the power of prosecutors. I stumbled onto the prison communication issue,” he added.
Orchingwa connected with formerly incarcerated people on Facebook and has used them as advisers to get feedback on how to improve the app.
“One of our advisers, a formerly incarcerated woman who served time in federal prison, told us that one of the major challenges for incarcerated women is having to parent their kids from afar,” said Orchingwa. “So she kind of implored us to include parental resources in the mobile app.”
The Ameelio team understands the challenges it faces in competing with companies such as JPay, Corrlink, Securus Technology, and Global Tel Link (GTL) Corporation on prison communications throughout the nation.
“You have American Securities, different private equity funds behind GTL and Securus,” said Orchingwa to SQ News. “They ended up buying smaller phone providers and started to consolidate the industry. They have eight percent of the market shares and are in 39 states. We are focusing our attention on 11 states because it’s much easier for us to get them to sign on because they wouldn’t be taking a revenue hit.”
Prisons and county jails get revenue cuts from the larger companies, so they are incentivized to keep costs high, said Orchingwa.
As Ameelio grows, they are learning how to navigate the many different national correctional systems to provide their services.
“In Texas, postcards are completely banned, so users can only send letters,” said Orchingwa. “Different prisons have their own arbitrary reasons for rejecting content, so our customer success is really helpful.”
Ameelio is seeking to launch a free prison video-conferencing platform which would be the first in the country.
“It’s about logistics. A lot of facilities were not built with accessing Wi-Fi in mind and are difficult to connect to,” said Orchingwa. “So we are actually offering not just software, but the hardware and broadband installation. Our team is very technically sound and we would offer 24-7 customer service.”
The Colorado and Iowa departments of correctional systems are on the list that Orchingwa has been in discussion with. They are hoping to see connections in California as well.
Ameelio is also meeting with different colleges to present education programs on their communications platforms. This will help build a virtual and a technological bridge to their programs for the incarcerated, said Orchingwa.
“Our vision is to build free technologies to help incarcerated people to reconnect with society,” said Orchingwa. “Also, pushing more states to transition into embracing free communications,”
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and the tech nonprofit Fast Forward have been donors to the startup.