Ameeliorating: Breaking Down Barriers in Prison Communication
Student startup Ameelio connects incarcerated people to their loved ones for free
“This year … I lost my job, started chemo … and you guys have helped me still be able to show my husband that I stand right here with him waiting for him no matter what.”
If you read through Ameelio’s app reviews on Google Play, grateful comments such as this one populate the page. From people who couldn’t previously afford to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones to others who went into debt because of the money they spent on letters, the impact this tech startup has had in the lives of families affected by incarceration is not only tangible but also vast.
Ameelio was co-founded in 2019 by Gabriel Saruhashi ’21 and Uzoma Orchingwa LAW ’22. Through their website and app, the prison communications nonprofit has already helped over 50,000 people get in touch across all prison facilities in the United States. The startup comes at a time when, according to their website, one in two Americans are directly impacted by incarceration, 63 percent of those incarcerated are over 100 miles away from their families and a 15-minute phone call to someone in prison can cost up to 25 dollars. Through their letters, postcards and, in the very near future, videoconferencing services, Ameelio sets out to reshape the prison communication landscape and dismantle the physical and financial barriers that separate incarcerated people from their loved ones.
Before starting law school at Yale, Orchingwa was pursuing a Master of Philosophy degree in criminology at the University of Cambridge, where he studied mass incarceration and United States penal policy. Because some of his childhood friends were incarcerated, he had long been interested in the issue. His passion to search for solutions that could target the problems that challenged the U.S. prison system propelled him to delve into this area.
But when Orchingwa was nearing the end of his studies, he realized that, in light of the “balkanized” nature of the American criminal justice system, many of the solutions he was promoting would require a long time to come to fruition. He started to pursue other ways through which more immediate impact could be made while long-term issues, such as long sentences and prosecutor power, were addressed. In doing so, he discovered the untapped niche of prison communication.
“I stumbled onto the issue of prison communication just reading reports primarily from the Prison Policy Initiative and other organizations,” Orchingwa said. “I started uncovering that this was a really large industry, valued at 1.2 billion dollars a year. Some of the leading companies were billion dollar companies, and were making their money primarily by exploiting low-income people, even though data shows that the more one stays in contact with their family members, the better that they do post-release.”
Upon realizing that this was a major problem — to which there could be tangible solutions through adequate investment — Orchingwa decided that he wanted to organize efforts to come up with a platform that could disrupt this industry.
Orchingwa explained that there is a lot of room for technological disruption in the prison communication landscape, given how much the area has been neglected in terms of innovation. According to him, the hope is that Ameelio can serve as an example of the kind of social justice work that others can do.
“I think a lot of people right now are looking for ways that they can contribute to criminal justice reform and a lot of the focus is on policy,” Orchingwa said. “But we want to highlight the fact that there are a lot of areas where innovation and technology can really help, and prison communication is one of them.”
Although the team started making plans and organizing their work in 2019, Orchingwa explained that it wasn’t until early 2020 that they really started building the service and its technology.
Orchingwa and Saruhashi first connected over coffee in New Haven during his search for a technical co-founder. Saruhashi’s time working for Facebook, experience with nonprofits and passion for social innovation made him a “perfect” match, Orchingwa said.
Saruhashi described that he and Orchingwa have different, but complementary, areas of expertise. While he deals closely with the technical and product side of Ameelio, Orchingwa works more with partnerships and fundraising.
According to Saruhashi, the name chosen for the startup is grounded in the idea of amelioration.
“‘Ameelio stems from the word ameliorate, to make things better,” Saruhashi said. “It reflects our focus on the disruption of the ongoing communication duopoly in American prisons, and on ameliorating the financial burden of prison communications costs on incarcerated people and their families.”
Emma Gray ’21 first became involved with the startup shortly before its official launch back in March. As head of partnerships and outreach, Gray’s job involves enrolling users in Ameelio’s services, raising awareness about their work and also creating partnerships with other organizations that can connect currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to helpful resources.
Before joining Ameelio, Gray worked with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project and attended the graduations of incarcerated students enrolled in a separate mentoring program called Family ReEntry. In these ceremonies, not only did she often hear them say that connection with their loved ones kept them hopeful during their time in prison, but she also had the opportunity to meet the students’ families in person.
However, after reading a Yale Daily News article on the birth of Ameelio, she was awakened to how this communication that they so cherished was, in fact, prohibitively expensive. Realizing that something that mattered so deeply to those affected by incarceration was often inaccessible, she was galvanized into working to streamline pathways for them to stay in touch with their loved ones.
“We thought we understood how hard it was, but we’ve only learned more about all of the barriers that exist,” Gray said.
According to Gray, one of the most prevalent barriers to prison communication is cost. On average, sending a single message through prison communication services like JPay or Corrlinks costs 50 cents.
“Many people think that doesn’t sound that high, but one in three families is going into debt just trying to stay in communication with their loved ones, which is a really upsetting statistic,” Gray said.
Gray recalled that one of their users reported often having to decide between paying for stamps and paying for heart medication before Ameelio’s services. She explained that, upon hearing stories like that, the team was shocked that people had to make this sort of decision when, outside of incarceration, text messages incur no costs.
To make matters worse, there was no incentive for industries to cut back on costs or make these communication services more accessible, Gray said, because the prison communications duopoly — mostly held by Securus Technology and Global Tel Link Corporation, according to Saruhashi — had spent a long time unchallenged. Gray explained that the captive market within the prison communication industry made it so people could only speak to their loved ones through companies that charged exorbitant prices, creating a “predatory space.”
This was the territory that Ameelio first stepped into when they launched their platform. But because of their crowdfunding efforts and the donations they’ve received, users don’t have to spend a cent to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones through their services. A 3 dollar donation — less than the price of a coffee at Starbucks, as Saruhashi described it — is enough to fund a month of free letters for an entire family.
Ameelio provides multiple mediums for communication, which include letters, postcards, pictures and, soon, a brand new service called “Connect,” which will become the first free prison videoconferencing platform in the United States. This wide range of modalities makes Ameelio more inclusive than most prison communications platforms. Different from most services, Ameelio also uses their own tracking system to inform users where their correspondence is, providing frequent notifications from the moment letters are sent to when they arrive.
But friends and family of incarcerated people are not the only ones using Ameelio’s services. Mourning Our Losses — a volunteer group that organizes crowd-sourced memorials for people who died living or working in U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers during the pandemic — uses Ameelio’s platform to find out about anonymous deaths that happened inside of these facilities and allow incarcerated people to write memorials for their friends who passed away behind bars.
Eliza Kravitz ’24, the project coordinator for Mourning Our Losses, said that Ameelio’s organizational features allow them to keep tabs on their letters in a more centralized way while optimizing the efficiency of their communications.
“This proves especially useful when we are expecting a reply from an inside contact,” Kravitz said. “We can check Ameelio’s page for Mourning Our Losses to see if our volunteer’s letter has arrived yet.”
According to Frances Keohane ’25, a volunteer for Mourning Our Losses, this communication used to cost the organization the price of stamps and envelopes, which added financial expenses.
“Ameelio has lifted incredible weights off of shoulders, not just for families of loved ones, but also for Mourning Our Losses and other small criminal justice organizations that rely on inside communication,” Keohane said in an email to the News. “It is all the more exciting for us at Mourning Our Losses that this partnership is not just one within the criminal justice system, but also reaches to our Yale roots.”
Ameelio’s contributors include the Robin Hood Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and the tech nonprofit accelerator Fast Forward. The startup has also enlisted the support of famous donors, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Academy Award winner Tarell McCraney and Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey — who recently gave Ameelio half a million dollars.
Mark Pekala, a sophomore at Harvard and a member of Ameelio’s engineering team, explained that this gratuitous service dramatically facilitates communication with people who are in prison. Through Ameelio’s platform, all users have to do to send messages to their incarcerated loved ones is download their app and make a few clicks.
“You don’t need to worry about buying a stamp or writing the address correctly,” Pekala explained. “We do all that for you.”
Since Ameelio’s formal launch coincided with the onset of the pandemic, the effects of the coronavirus exacerbated the onus of their services. In light of the turbulent period that the world was going through, the Ameelio team felt motivated to do whatever they could to make it easier for families separated by incarceration to connect
Gray, Pekala and Orchingwa all cited the new economic difficulties that were brought by the pandemic. Where some might have previously been able to afford phone calls, rising unemployment rates and undefined interruptions to jobs made it so several families no longer had the means to pay for that.
“One of the first things that happened once the pandemic seriously hit was that they canceled in-person visits, and 42 percent of families pre-COVID reported visiting their loved ones in prison and communicating that way,” Pekala said. “That’s a sizable chunk of people that, all of a sudden, couldn’t communicate anymore.”
Pekala explained that Ameelio is currently on GitHub — a platform where developers from all over the world can access codes for projects that the team is working on and either suggest changes or add new lines of code for them to review. This allows for users or others who are familiar with Ameelio’s platform and have technical or programming knowledge to contribute to making the app even better.
Joyce Wu ’23, a member of the Ameelio engineering team, joined the startup to pursue her passion for combining computer science and design to build platforms that could empower traditionally marginalized communities. Although she works mostly on the technical side of Ameelio, she also takes part in graphic design initiatives.
Wu explained that, although Ameelio has provided users with the opportunity to write letters since their launch, she has been working with part of the team to design premade postcards, which users have described as “cool, funny [and] inspirational.” Some of them, Wu explained, even have interactive games on the back that incarcerated people can fill out to pass the time.
“So many facilities are under lockdown: People are stuck inside their cells for 23 hours a day. It’s really isolating for them right now,” Wu said. “We do a lot of user interviews and a lot of people talk about how they want games, so we have many postcards that people can send to their loved ones that also have games like Sudoku and stuff like that.”
According to Wu, the process of sending a letter through Ameelio begins through their website or app, which the engineering team coded themselves. The program allows users to type in their letters and then exports the text and sends it over to a tertiary service using an application programming interface. This service then prints and sends the letters directly.
Maria Antonia Sendas ’23 joined Ameelio as a fellow over the summer and continued to work with the team throughout the fall semester. According to her, the startup’s steadfast commitment to truly understanding the challenges that plague the prison communications industry is part of what moves them to connect even more incarcerated people to their loved ones.
“As an organization, Ameelio really wants to understand, on a profound level, what incarcerated people are going through so that we can cater to those needs,” Sendas explained. “Ameelio has become much more than just a service, it has become a support network in and of itself, one that is very humanistic and fully dedicated to making a difference.”
When she first started to work at Ameelio, Sendas said she was impressed by the organization’s forward-facing outlook. Although they had launched their correspondence services in March, by the time she joined the team in June, they were already writing applications for grants that could fund future videoconferencing services.
Jenny Lee ’22, who did marketing for Ameelio over the summer, said that she really valued the welcoming, passionate and collaborative nature of the group. She recalled a specific moment in weekly meetings where co-founders Saruhashi and Orchingwa would give people shoutouts for the work they had done, praising team members for their dedication and reminding everyone of how much their work mattered.
“There was always a really great vibe within the team,” Lee said.
According to Pekala, Saruhashi and Sendas, Ameelio is always working to refine their platforms according to the feedback they receive from users. In the Ameelio app’s Google Play page, testimonials that describe the nonprofit’s customer service as “the best I have ever received” illustrate the team’s attentiveness to user feedback to iteratively improve their services.
Ameelio’s commitment to facilitating correspondence between incarcerated people and their loved ones is already disrupting the prison communications landscape. Through their services, more than 20,000 people across all 50 states have already sent over 100,000 letters to their family or friends who are in prison. But while their success has been encouraging, Ameelio’s work is far from over. Since studies have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones helps improve reentry outcomes, their ultimate goal is to help reduce incarceration rates in the United States through the power of communication.
As Saruhashi and Orchingwa described, they will continue to seek innovative ways to make incarcerated people feel as close as possible to their loved ones. The team as a whole is committed to help keeping these connections alive for people like Gene, who wrote this thankful review for Ameelio:
“This is a good thing to offer people with loved ones locked away. Im 75 and have palsy in my hands … so writing is very hard for me but even harder for my son to decipher. My thanks to the good folks who provide this free service.”
Maria Fernanda Pacheco | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Nov. 6: A previous version of this article referred to Fast Forward as a tech nonprofit. In fact, it is a tech nonprofit accelerator.