features

Sending a message

Two Yale students want to make it easier for people in prison to talk to their loved ones.

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Illustration: E S Kibele Yarman.

Illustration: E S Kibele Yarman.

View full image

Uzoma Orchingwa ’22JD, ’22MBA, and Gabriel Saruhashi ’22 have the language of the young tech entrepreneur down pat. Words like synergy, disruption, scaling, and onboarding roll effortlessly off their lips in breathless, confident descriptions of their products and their plans. And they’re convincing. Since they launched their app in March, they’ve attracted funding from the likes of Google, Mozilla, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and they’ve attracted press from Forbes and Fast Company. So, these guys are about to be rich, right?  

Well . . .

They may indeed turn out to be successful, but Orchingwa and Saruhashi’s startup, Ameelio, isn’t going to make anyone rich. Ameelio is a nonprofit that aims to help people in prison communicate better with their family and friends on the outside. Their target: the for-profit prison telecom industry, which brings in $1.2 billion per year by charging up to $24 for a 15-minute phone call. (This is where the word “disruption” comes in.) For Ameelio’s founders and supporters, reforming prison communications means relief for strapped inmate families, and better reentry outcomes and reduced recidivism for incarcerated people.

Orchingwa and Saruhashi started their company in 2019. They were in the midst of building their first product when the pandemic hit, causing many prisons to go on lockdown or cancel visitation. So the two quickly got up and running with an app that allows people to send letters and photos from their smartphones or computers to those in prison. Ameelio receives the letters and photos, prints them, and mails them, all at no charge. “But our north star is video conferencing,” says Orchingwa, who calls himself Zo. The two have taken the year off from their studies, and they are currently working with two state departments of corrections—they can’t disclose which ones yet—on a pilot project for a video conferencing platform.

“Zo and Gabe are a dynamic duo,” says Bill Cromie, managing director of Blue Ridge Labs, a division of New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation that focuses on nonprofit tech startups. Blue Ridge was one of Ameelio’s early supporters. “Zo can bring down the house. He is an incredible leader and storyteller. And Gabe is one of the most effective operators and executors we’ve seen.”


Orchingwa came up with the idea for Ameelio in his first year at Yale, where he is pursuing a JD at the Law School and an MBA at the School of Management. It came out of his long interest in criminal justice, which started in his teenage years in West Hartford, Connecticut, when several of his friends were incarcerated. After college, Orchingwa was a Gates scholar at Cambridge, where he earned his MPhil in criminology with a focus on the US penal system. He was interested in criminal justice reform, but, he says, “I realized that policy takes a really long time. In the United States, there’s not one prison system; there are 51 different prison systems.”

So he set his sights on a corner of the system he could change. “I wanted a way to really improve the lives of incarcerated people and their families by reducing costs and reconnecting them with loved ones. And that was the vision: can we build a free alternative communication platform that lessens the burdens that low-income people experience,” he says. “And by making it a nonprofit we remove the need to exploit users and charge high fees.” The name Ameelio, he adds, is derived from “ameliorate—to make things better.”

Orchingwa then went looking in Yale’s student tech community for a partner who could help build such a platform. He soon found Saruhashi, an undergrad from Brazil who is majoring in computer science and psychology. Saruhashi had worked at Facebook for two summers, and, more specifically relevant to Ameelio’s mission, he had created an NGO in high school that connected English-language learners around the world via letters.

“We met at Koffee and hit it off,” says Orchingwa, “and we just kind of hit the ground running.” Within a week, they were interviewing formerly incarcerated people through a local nonprofit to get an idea of what inmates and their families needed.

What they learned was that communicating with loved ones in prison is difficult for many families. “A vast amount of people impacted by incarceration are low-income people,” says Orchingwa. “Fifty percent of them were unemployed for eight years before incarceration.” So the costs of travel and phone calls can be prohibitive for their families. “One in three families go into debt just paying for phone calls and prison visitation alone,” says Saruhashi. “One of our users told us she had to decide between paying for postage stamps and paying for her heart medication.”

What’s more, the contact that people in prison have with loved ones outside makes a difference after they leave. Several studies have shown that inmates who receive visits from family are less likely to be reincarcerated: 26 percent less overall, according to a 2016 meta-analysis, and 53 percent less among men. As for telephone contact, a 2014 study of women inmates showed that among types of contact, “familial telephone contact was most consistently associated with reductions in recidivism.”

One of the reasons the cost of phone calls is so high is that prison systems contract with for-profit companies to provide telephone service for incarcerated people. (Two such companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, dominate the market.) This is partly because of the specialized nature of such phone calls: prisons require the ability to monitor, record, and regulate the calls. But there is another factor. In 39 states, the prison systems receive commissions from the for-profit providers on every call. The companies and the states both turn a profit on calls that typically cost about a dollar a minute. (The full range stretches from a low of 12 cents a minute to a high of 12 dollars a minute.)

In 2017, former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn told TechCrunch that the prison phone system is “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator. . . . These families are economically stressed; they can’t afford to keep in touch. And that means when these inmates are released, they go home as strangers. These things have cyclical negative impacts on communities. We’re paying more with this revolving-door situation, with inmates going back in.”

Plenty of people in the criminal justice reform movement want to rein in the for-profit phone industry, and they have begun to have some success. Bianca Tylek is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Worth Rises, which is “dedicated to dismantling the prison industry and ending the exploitation of those it touches.” The organization has been part of successful campaigns in New York City and San Francisco to make phone calls free for inmates in local jails. Since New York City’s new law went into effect in 2019, inmates and their families have saved $10 million per year, and telephone calls increased by 40 percent, Tylek notes.

“I have been saying for years, Why is this not free?” says Tylek. “Why in 2020 are we paying toll rates? And when we have Skype and FaceTime, why are you charging people for video calls?”


Of course, someone still has to pay for the service. San Francisco County went from making a profit on telephone calls to paying GTL more than half a million dollars a year to provide them. Orchingwa says that as a nonprofit, Ameelio could do it more cheaply. In March, they will begin their pilot video-calling program in the state they’re now working with, and they hope to expand to six states by the end of the year. “Our targets are the 11 states that don’t have commission schemes,” says Orchingwa, “which means they’re not getting revenue from these for-profit providers.”

Video calls are already offered in many prison systems, for a fee. Even before the pandemic, many prison facilities had ended or sharply curtailed in-person visitation, offering video calling—which is easier for prisons to manage—as an alternative. Tylek says that it happened in part because the communications companies insisted on it. “Securus and GTL had contracts that required prisons to restrict in-person visits,” she says. “Seventy-four percent of jails that instituted video calling got rid of in-person visitation.” The two companies have stopped including such requirements in their contracts. But in-person visitation has still not returned to many of the facilities.

Tylek says this is a good reason to have a nonprofit contracting for services like video calls. “It would be helpful to be operating with an organization that has values that align with the interests of prisoners and their families.”
Blue Ridge Labs’ Cromie says the changing landscape and the calls for reform make Ameelio’s entry into the market timely. “As jurisdictions are prohibiting their departments of corrections from participating in the revenue from vendors, it will no longer be a cash cow for those departments,” says Cromie. “If they’re not going to make a buck off of it, they really want communications, to help reduce recidivism and to lower their long-term costs. So now their incentives are deeply aligned with what Ameelio is doing.”

Although Ameelio’s current offering is a more modest product than its forthcoming video platform, it’s a very welcome one. Especially in the pandemic. Last March, they launched Letters, which simplifies the process of sending mail to people in prison. On a computer or a phone app, users can type in a letter of up to 9,000 characters and include digital photos. They give Ameelio the recipient’s inmate ID and facility, and the app autocompletes the address. Ameelio, using customer management tools developed for the direct mail industry, prints and mails the letter for free via US mail.

Ameelio also offers some special features, though at a cost: users can send larger photos, games like crosswords or Sudoku, short stories, or prison recipes. The proceeds from sales of these features go to fund free letters for other users. Orchingwa and Saruhashi see revenue from such “freemium” offerings as part of how their operation will ultimately become sustainable. Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises disapproves, however. “We would not support any model in which they are charging users,” she says. “The goal should always be to maximize contact.”


As of early December, Ameelio had sent 188,642 letters, postcards, games, and news stories to more than 32,000 incarcerated people in all 50 states. In prisons under lockdown because of the pandemic, visitation was prohibited and even trips to the phone were reduced. “So Ameelio becomes literally the only way for them to make sure there’s someone out there for them,” says Saruhashi.

Ameelio’s mail feature has also been a boon for organizations that correspond with people in prison. Groups like the writer’s organization PEN America, which runs a prison writing program, and DreamKit, which helps support unstably housed youth, have used Ameelio for mass mailings—and they pay for the service, which is another piece of how Ameelio may become financially sustainable.

For now, they’ve gotten help from donations in all sizes. Besides Blue Ridge Labs, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gave Ameelio $505,000 from his Start Small fund. The Mozilla Foundation and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt have also made contributions.

The Ameelio team will have their hands full for the next several years trying to build and expand their video conferencing service. But social entrepreneurs aren’t known for their reluctance to think big, and Orchingwa has plenty of other ideas. The prison money transfer system, for one, is on his mind. That system allows inmates to buy goods from a prison store, using money they earn or that is sent to them by loved ones. “It’s extremely predatory,” Orchingwa says. “About 10 percent of every transaction is taken out. This is family members sending money to their loved ones. There’s so many hidden fees, upfront fees, and maintenance fees and things like that.”

But Ameelio can’t do it all. Orchingwa says he hopes other nonprofit players will get interested, work with them, and build on what they’ve learned. “We don’t think we can be Superman all on our own,” he says. “We want a whole Justice League.” 

5 comments

  • Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL
    Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL , 10:06am January 15 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a graduate of Yale School of Medicine (MD, 1982) and Yale Law School (MSL, 1980), I am delighted to see these students plying their skills to address issues of profound social injustice. I worked as a legislator in Ulster County NY, and we worked to address communications difficulties and provide better medical care for individuals who are incarcerated. The options for humane and compassionate services were too few, and this app seems to improve communications dramatically.

    If you are teaming up with aspiring Avengers, sign me up!
    Kathy

  • jen pleasants
    jen pleasants, 10:54am January 15 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Wow! Congratulations on a fantastic organization drastically improving lives! I have experienced first hand how wonderful this service can be. We have a dear friend unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit and is in prison because he is Black. We pay the tolls so we can talk to him often however his family and friends in LA can't afford to do the same. Please let me know when you all are in California. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. What amazing young men!

  • Kristin Horneffer
    Kristin Horneffer, 12:52pm January 16 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This sounds so useful! Good luck to you both!

  • Noel Werle, MSN
    Noel Werle, MSN, 4:56pm January 16 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    You two fellows are great! This is a much needed endeavor. I too have personal experience with a loved-one being incarcerated. The entire system of trying to contact and stay in touch with my person was so complicated and expensive! I can imagine many people just give up trying to navigate the system -- it was almost impossible to find someone in charge to assist. I was able to afford this, and was determined to figure it out; while many would be unable to. Then once my person called me, he was interrupted so many times by a recording, telling me this was a call from such-and-such prison, that the call was whittled down to less than 15 minutes, instead of the 20 minutes once per week we were allowed. We didn't give up; we got used to how it worked and set up a schedule. It made such a difference in his life, and it was sad to hear how many people incarcerated with him did not get calls. Anything you can do will make a difference! Thank you!

  • Sandy Bouton
    Sandy Bouton, 5:40pm January 18 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thank you for drawing attention to the unnecessarily high cost of prison phone calls and for doing something to improve conditions for incarcerated people and their loved ones. I have seen first-hand a young couple struggle to pay for phone calls when the husband was incarcerated. In order to emotionally support each other and their child, they talked daily (often more than once). It was a huge expense adding stress to an already unbearably stressful situation. I read that Connecticut charges a 68% tax on prison phone costs. I believe this is not a significant source of revenue for the state but can be a really significant burden on the families of the imprisoned. Please keep up your work providing visibility and solutions!

Post a comment