As COVID-19 spreads in American jails and prisons—where at least 59,000 people have been infected with the virus so far, and more than 550 people have died—in-person visits to inmates have been banned across the country. For the families of many of the incarcerated, there’s no good option for staying in touch: Just two companies dominate all prison communications, and charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone call.
Ameelio, a new nonprofit, offers free alternatives, beginning with an app that turns a typed digital message and photos into a physical letter that’s mailed to a prison. A videoconferencing app that incarcerated people can use for free will follow.
“I was looking for ways to have an impact in the interim while we work on the longer-term project of criminal justice reform,” says Ameelio CEO Uzoma Orchingwa, one of the Yale Law students behind the project. “I sort of stumbled onto the issue of prison communications.”
Decades of research back the idea that prisoners who stay in close contact with family members are more likely to do well when they’re released and less likely to end up back in prison. But despite that benefit, and the fact that reducing recidivism would save states large amounts of money, most states use systems—largely from companies Securus and Global Tel Link—that make calls prohibitively expensive.
“What happens is a state contracts with one company, and the company completely has a monopoly,” Orchingwa says. “They get to set whatever rate they want going forward.” In many states, the companies also have to pay a commission back to the government, which they pass on to the callers, raising the cost further. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons recently made voice and video calls free, but more than 1.7 million people are incarcerated in state prisons.)
Because low-income Americans are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, many of their families can’t afford the cost—and even sending letters can be a burden. “We’ve heard about people that have to decide between paying for stamps and paying for their heart medication,” says cofounder Gabriel Saruhashi. For those who lost jobs because of the coronavirus crisis, things are even worse now.
The nonprofit launched its letters program two months ago, sharing it via Facebook groups for family members, and has already sent 15,000 letters on behalf of those family members. Beyond the cost savings, some have turned to the app because it makes sending a letter easier, since it isn’t necessary to have an envelope or go to the post office; some family members are also using the service from other countries. The nonprofit covers the cost of the mail service that prints and mails each letter and also handles the administrative quirks of sending mail to prison, which involves finding the right inmate number and a mailing address that often doesn’t match the prison’s physical address.
Former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn has argued that the FCC should push the companies to lower rates. In 2019, a new law went into effect in New York City that made calls from city jails free, and San Francisco followed with a similar law. In Connecticut, legislators are pushing to make calls free from state prisons. As Ameelio begins to work with prisons to offer its videoconferencing app (the prisons will need to install equipment to allow the videoconferencing on that end), it plans to work first in the areas that are eliminating fees, as state and local governments try to find ways to avoid paying high fees for calls themselves.
It will likely be more challenging to move into less progressive states. But the nonprofit thinks it can happen. “I think that the main challenge has been the lack of an alternative,” says Orchingwa. “Companies like Securus and Global Tel Link can get away with charging these prices because the states don’t have anywhere else to go. . . . Once people see that there is an alternative, it’s going to be really hard for correctional departments to be able to justify why they’re contracting companies that are charging their constituents $25 for a 15-minute phone call.”