Tech Company Aims to Disrupt Predatorial Prison Phone Industry

By Shani Saxon Feb 17, 2021

Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa’s mission seemed simple when he and his partner, Gabe Saruhashi, launched their non-profit, Ameelio, less than a year ago. Incarcerated people and their loved ones shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant fees just to stay in touch, he thought. It’s not just that the system is exploitive, “but tons of data shows that the more families and those who are incarcerated can stay in touch, the better it is for everyone, and recidivism is reduced,” Orchingwa told Colorlines. 

According to The Prison Policy Initiative , people incarcerated in the United States are forced to pay astronomical fees to speak to loved ones and lawyers because jails and prisons are “baited” into price gauging “in exchange for a share of the revenue,” according to the organization. 

When it comes to county and city run jails in particular, these predatory telecommunications contracts are often charging $1 per minute for each call, according to The Prison Policy Initiative. Orchingwa, 29, says that some incarcerated people are being charged $25 for a 15 minute phone call, not to mention the associated hidden fees that are included with every transaction. “There are about 27 million people in the U.S. that have incarcerated loved ones,” Orchingwa said. “Research shows that 1 out of every 3 of them are being driven into debt trying to pay for communication to stay in contact with their families. We are trying disrupt this industry by to offering a free alternative to families across the country.”

The Ameelio mobile app, which launched in April 2020 as COVID-19 raged throughout the world, allows incarcerated people and their loved ones to send letters and photos without the hassle of actually writing and mailing letters. “The rapid onset of COVID caused prisons to shut down in prison visitation. So families only had one option, which was the exorbitant phone calls,” Orchingwa explained. “So we decided that it made a lot of sense to stay in touch with letters, but it’s extremely inefficient for families to have to the CVS to print photos, then go to the post office to get stamps ad so forth.”

Orchingwa, Saruhashi, 22, and their team simplified that process with Ameelio, which allows users to locate the person they want to reach, along with their facility, just by entering the person’s inmate ID number, which is then used to locate them in their state database. From there, all they have to do is type up and letter and attach whatever photos they want to include, and the app will convert that into a physical letter and photos that are automatically mailed to the person. Families are not charged a fee for this service.

The app also offers a variety of mental health-related content and games, mainly because families are often looking for ways to stimulate their incarcerated loved ones. “Right now 60 percent of all our content on our platform is personal photos and letters, but the other 40 percent is actually pre-designed content we developed ourselves, like crosswords, games and an article feature,” Orchingwa explained. “Folks can include a link and we convert the news article into a letter that’s sent to their loved ones to keep them engaged with what’s going on in the world.”

Ameelio, which is derived from the word ameliorate, has also created an additional platform focused on helping so far roughly 30 criminal justice organizations to stay in touch with incarcerated clients. These organizations, including The Marshall Project and Tech America, “had the very same issues that we’ve had, which was exorbitant cost of phones, but also just the mail inefficiencies,” Zo said. “They told us they were spending a lot of time handling letters, stamping them and then mailing them. So we built them a web application on top of our letters infrastructure that allows them to just drag and drop Excel files with all the names they want to reach. They just have to drag and drop a PDF, and then we send the info out on their behalf.”

Robbie Pollock from prison and justice writing organization Pen America said that Ameelio allowed them to expand their platform.  “Thanks to Ameelio, instead of shutting down our mail efforts we were able to continue and expand our mentorship program for incarcerated writers by 50% and have the capacity to expand even further,” he said. 

As Orchingwaand the rest of the Ameelio team look to the future, “Our Northstar technology is actually a video conferencing platform,” he said. “So right now we’re set to launch in April of this year. We have four states across the country that have agreed to pilot with us.” Because of COVID, Orchingwa said a lot of correctional officials have been excited to adopt the company’s new technologies. “They obviously can’t let folks inside can’t see their loved ones because of the pandemic, and luckily a lot of progressive commissioners are open to new ideas.” Ameelio’s plan is to work on scaling their video conferencing platform nationwide following the initial launch this spring.

Orchingwao’s interest in the criminal justice system began when he was a teenager. He was born in Chicago, and then spent most of his life studying in Nigeria before landing in West Hartford, Connecticut. A lot of his childhood friends ended up incarcerated, and Orchingwa learned firsthand how challenging it was just to stay in touch with them. That experience inspired Zo to get it his master’s degree in criminology from the University of Cambridge in an attempt to learn as much as possible about the criminal justice system. “I pretty much stumbled onto the issue of prison communications by reading reports and reading different articles,” he said. “I realized just how extremely exploitative it was.”

So far Orchingwa says he hasn’t witnessed any pushback against the work he and his team are doing with Ameelio, which is primarily funded through grants, donations and support from The Robin Hood Foundation. “A lot of families are extremely excited about this entrance into the market,” he said. “They’re excited to have someone who they know isn’t trying to extort them and offering is them free technologies. Criminal justice organizations are also supportive because they’ve long been looking for new tech that will help not just families, but also them to communicate with people on the inside.”

He hopes that Ameelio can be a bridge for families currently impacted by the criminal justice system. “We’re here to offer them some relief and to lessen their burdens.”