Making a call from behind bars is so expensive—in the most extreme cases, as much as $25 for a 15-minute call—that some families go into debt just to stay in touch with loved ones who are incarcerated. For years, two companies have monopolized the communications industry in prisons and jails, driving prices higher through questionable practices like offering prisons a cut of the proceeds. To break their grip on the industry, a nonprofit called Ameelio is developing a free video-calling platform as an alternative.
“Our big theory of change is that we can’t sustainably reduce the size of the U.S. criminal justice system without using technology to provide vital resources to incarcerated people while they’re there,” says Ameelio CEO Uzoma Orchingwa, one of the Yale Law students who launched the nonprofit. Research consistently shows that prisoners who stay in close contact with family members have better outcomes when they’re released.
In 2020, Ameelio—the winner in the social justice category of Fast Company‘s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—launched an app to make it easier to send letters or postcards to inmates. The app lets someone quickly compose a message and attach a photo, then looks up the inmate’s address (something that’s often complicated to find) and prints and mails a free letter through a direct mailing service. This year, the nonprofit will launch a free video calling app, the first of its kind. By the end of the year, it plans to pilot the service in three states.
The app can be used not only for calls with family and friends, but to offer services like education or therapy sessions. “Mental health is one of the biggest challenges in the criminal justice system,” Orchingwa says. “Our vision is to be the technological bridge that’s going to connect incarcerated people with the outside world. It could be families, it could be education providers, it could be voting organizations.” Congress recently lifted a ban on Pell Grants for people who are incarcerated, so more prisoners may want to access higher education; the nonprofit is beginning to partner with educational institutions to use the new platform both for classes and for services like academic advising or tutoring. (The companies that dominate prison communications now often force prisons to adopt proprietary tablets and other devices that can’t access tools like Khan Academy, so Ameelio is also advocating for institutions to switch to devices like Chromebooks.)
Policies are also changing. Eleven states, so far, have outlawed the “commission” model where prison telecom companies pay a kickback to prisons using their services, increasing rates. Ameelio will begin working with those states first as it pushes others to follow suit. “We’re going to work with those states to get them on board and start using the platform while we work on accelerating the legislative change that’s going to force those other states to embrace a free alternative,” says Orchingwa.