Ameelio – The Free Prison Communication Platform

Writer’s Note: Currently, I am working as a software engineering intern at Ameelio remotely, through spring and summer 2020. Specifically, right now, I am working on writing web crawlers to build a seamless, searchable nationwide inmate database.

All uncited quotes come from a Zoom interview with Uzoma Orchingwa and Gabriel Saruhashi on Thursday 4/23.

THE PRODUCT

In January 2020, Ameelio, the first free prison communication platform, was co-founded by Uzoma Orchingwa (“Zo”) and Gabriel Saruhashi (“Gabe”). The mission of Ameelio, in simple words, is to reconnect incarcerated people with their loved ones through digital solutions — specifically, the letters product (an app through which loved ones can type out letters to be physically delivered to the incarcerated) and the video-conferencing platform (a future vision of secure video-calls and e-messaging real time). However, Zo and Gabe also angle towards policy impact, so another key aspect of Ameelio is the trends tool (an analytics platform to better understand recidivism data as it relates to in-prison communication). 

THE STORY

A JD student at Yale Law School, Zo was working as a research assistant for Professor Steven Duke, relating to an upcoming course designed around mass incarceration. Prior to that, he pursued a criminology degree at Cambridge University. Together, these experiences stimulated his political passion for the criminal justice system. 

However, as he soon grew to realize, the policy prescriptions he came to believe in were long-term and far-off. One factor in this delay is the fact that our criminal justice system is “balkanized” by state, to the effect that our nation almost has “fifty-one separate systems.” Furthermore, Zo cites Professor John Pfaff as he tells me that “the vast majority [of incarcerated people] are there for violent offenses…If we want to tackle the issue of mass incarcerations, we have to take on the thorny problem: what do we do with those who have committed violent crimes?” He goes on to explain that in a climate where ⅔ of free Americans oppose sentence reduction for violent offenders, where the public at-large falsely believes that our prison problem is by and large a war on drugs, the policy changes that we need are far from becoming reality. Of course, widespread dissemination of hard facts can prove that longer sentences directly lead to higher rates of recidivism, but for now, more radical criminal justice changes are unlikely to sit well with most Americans.

Stuck in this state of political stalemate, Zo remembers asking himself how he could contribute to this issue in the interim. Through other research at the time, Zo stumbled upon the issue of prison communication and its effects on recidivism, only to discover the exorbitant cost of current prison contact. According to the Ella Baker Center, 34% of families have spiraled into debt due to the high costs of telecommunication and visitations, and research has shown that lack of contact corresponds to poor health. To blame are rich corporations who have essentially monopolized the system. In a Washington Post Op-Ed on this very issue, Zo wrote: “[T]he $1.2 billion prison telecommunications industry is controlled by two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link Corp., which have been granted exclusive contracts in exchange for highly profitable commissions. These companies charge high prices because they can, which is why one Connecticut resident reported spending $500 each month just to talk to her imprisoned husband.” Startlingly, as cited in “Uncovering Securus’ Profits,” in 2014, Securus’ profits on phone service revenue across 47 states totalled to $114.6 million. All of this is worsened by statistical proof that for the incarcerated, communication with loved ones decreases rates of recidivism — as explained in a Prison Legal News article, communication could decrease “felony reconviction” by 13% and “technical violations” by 25%. In the face of these grim realities, Zo decided to build a free alternative. Cue Ameelio.

Soon after coming upon this idea, Zo met Gabe, a current senior at Yale studying Computer Science and Psychology. Gabe always enjoyed building products for people, or in his own words, “creat[ing] things that mattered.” For two years, Gabe worked at Facebook and absolutely hated it; he found it “so alienating…the polar opposite of the reason I had originally come to the US.” Following that, he worked for an early-stage startup in the FinTech space. At the culmination of all these experiences, Gabe says, “I reconnected with my personal mission of building for good.” Upon his return to college, he tells me, “I knew I wanted to keep building for good, and didn’t just want to get back to classes and doing the same thing over and over.” So, he connected with Zo, and together, they brought Ameelio to life. For Gabe, the letters product was of special importance because it resonated with his past experiences working with letters as a means of connecting people. He explains, “back in high school, I had an NGO that I worked on for 4 years, that was basically connecting English learners from poor communities in Brazil, Ghana, India, the US with letters.”

THE TEAM

Zo and Gabe form quite a complementary duo. With little to no technical experience, Zo admits he faced a steep learning curve into Ameelio’s work. However, Gabe’s expertise fills in those gaps, and having no background in the criminal justice space, his questions often interrogate Zo’s assumptions. As Zo describes, their backgrounds together “prevent groupthink.” And, as they describe, from day one of them connecting with each other, it seemed like their motto was “being scrappy” about things.

Their team is just as diverse. Emma, an undergraduate history major with a background of teaching in prisons, works on outreach and partnerships; Jesse, the lead software engineer, works out of Iowa and is self-taught; and more. However, despite their eclectic background paths, all of the team is bound by the “moral situation.” Zo explains, “we all recognize that we should not be exploiting people at their most vulnerable state”

THE CHALLENGES

As Ameelio has grown since its inception, Gabe explains, the biggest hurdle has been forging the “path towards self-sustainability.” For a brief moment, the duo considered implementing a premium product track. However, horrified by the reality that ⅓ of families with incarcerated members currently pay for phone services, they quickly realized that they were “uncomfortable with the idea of monetizing [Ameelio].” 

Since then, they have been busy devising alternative models of pricing that involve other stakeholders. Soon, they came to realize that lawyers, as a group, face many of the same problems they were trying to address. Gabe explains to me that lawyers often reported spending 3-4 hours just dealing with the logistics of sending letters to their incarcerated clients. In this sense, partnerships with lawyers presents a great opportunity for Ameelio to self-sustain (as they can generally afford to pay for services) while also benefiting the legal community at-large.

THE STATUS

For Zo, the biggest surprise along this journey has been realizing how interconnected impacted communities are with one another (he even tells of one user who is involved in twenty-two different Facebook groups surrounding this issue). He is hopeful that Ameelio’s work can shine light on the disproportionate impacts of our justice system. Although he is happy with the word-of-mouth around Ameelios’s service, he is working to try and gain more media coverage.

Meanwhile, Gabe is eager to tap into the expansive network of communities around loved ones of incarcerated people. Specifically, he describes to me the effectiveness of Ameelio’s new ambassador program, wherein ten users have volunteered to spread the word about Ameelio. He goes on to say that the great part is that these people feel a sense of ownership and collaboration with the team.

Although the initial plan was to kickstart their service later in the year, Zo and Gabe decided to launch the letters product of Ameelio in March, given the COVID-19 crisis. According to The Marshall Project Coronavirus Tracker, since the crisis has hit, “19 corrections systems have suspended all visitation” and “33 corrections systems have suspended normal visitation but allow legal visits.” And, for context, another article from The Marshall Project states that there are currently more than 300,000 incarcerated people in lockdown. In light of these DOC limited-communication policies, Zo explains, the team thought that “allowing people to send letters could really help in this moment.”

THE CALL FOR CONTRIBUTORS

Zo and Gabe finish with this: only a few months old now, Ameelio is an open-source technology platform always looking for contributors. So, if you’re interested, reach out: team@ameelio.org!

Nikhil Dharmaraj
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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