Visible Connect #TeamTuesday: Meet Ameelio

In 2021, Visible proudly announced the third cohort of its annual Visible Connect Accelerator Program, which supports nonprofit organizations changing their communities using mobile technology. In partnership with Uncharted, Visible Connect awards each nonprofit in the accelerator a $15,000 financial grant and free mobile devices with one year of Visible service. Visible and Uncharted will work alongside these game-changing entrepreneurs to help them elevate their organizations and connect them with the resources, services, expertise and relationships they need to accelerate their impact. Over the past few weeks, we have enjoyed introducting you to all six of the inspiring nonprofit within our cohort, honing in on how they’re using mobile technology to create meaningful change in our community.

Gabe Saruhashi (left) and Uzoma Orchingwa (right) are co-founders of Ameelio, a nonprofit using technology to connect families and organizations to incarcerated people across the nation – for free.

Where did the idea for Ameelio come from?
In 2020, co-founders Uzoma Orchingwa and Gabe Saruhashi launched Ameelio, the nation’s first nonprofit prison telecommunications company. Zo initially conceived the idea for Ameelio during his MPhil in Criminology at the University of Cambridge, where he reexamined the history of U.S. penal policy in pursuit of novel solutions. Realizing that policy measures to decarcerate the U.S. are many years away from implementation, he began searching for an interim solution to improve the lives of those impacted by mass incarceration. While reading reports about reducing recidivism, Zo encountered compelling research detailing the positive impact of increased communication on post-release outcomes: increased communication during incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism rates and improve mental health. The idea for Ameelio was born.

How important is it for people to stay connected to their loved ones who are experiencing incarceration?
Decades of research indicate the beneficial impact of increased communication during incarceration on post-release outcomes. One study found that experiencing visitation resulted in a 26% decrease in recidivism, on average. When combined with other measures for reducing recidivism, the impact of visitation increased, reducing recidivism by up to 56% decrease. Ameelio started with hard-copy mail, building upon research indicating that written correspondence continues to be the most widely-used form of contact by those incarcerated, other than in-person visitation. However, we recognize that the widespread reliance on mail and in-person visitation is likely due to the extortionate prices charged for phone and video calling. By providing a free video calling alternative, we hope to expand the quantity and quality of prison visitation to those who cannot afford current options.

What are some of the barriers to stay connected and how does that factor into what Ameelio’s next steps as an organization are?
There are two dominating for-profit prison communications companies who charge families high prices just to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. $25 for 15 minutes on the phone. $1 to send and receive a text. This financial burden disproportionately falls on the country’s most vulnerable individuals and communities. While the $1.2 billion prison telecommunications industry boasts 50% profit margins and prison facilities profit, and one in three families falls into debt due to the high cost of connecting with an incarcerated loved one.

Through free communications tools, Ameelio will liberate vulnerable families from the grips of exploitative monopolies, and create a new, trusted communication channel between incarcerated people and their support networks outside. This is an essential first step towards building a rehabilitative justice system.

Could you tell us what impact these letters, photos and arts have on individuals, maybe a success story?
In a survey sent out in August, 96.9% of our users reported communicating more with their loved ones thanks to Ameelio, and on average, users reported a 74% cost reduction with mail/e-messaging after starting to use Ameelio. 17% of users did not send any written communication before Ameelio, so as a result of our app new families are re-connecting with incarcerated loved ones.

We also often hear directly from our users:
“My son wakes up and has his postcard laying on the floor picture-up. I never write letters so this is perfect for us both. I love the variety of things I can send. Thank you for thinking of our family that is locked away from us. It’s been 2 years since I’ve been allowed to  see my son and this helps ease the pain”

“It’s really hard for me to write letters because of pain and numbness in my hands. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“It really helps ‘cause money is so tight and I can’t afford stamps. I’m choosing stamps to talk to my husband or my heart meds that are too expensive.”

Why is mobile technology important to helping you achieve your mission?
Mobile technology is essential to our mission. Currently, our largest platform, Letters, is available as an app and online, allowing users to send letters, postcards, and photos to their incarcerated loved ones from any location, at any time. As Ameelio continues to work towards its mission of providing free communications tools for the incarcerated and their loved ones to decouple prisons from profit, build community, and reduce recidivism, mobile technology will be essential. Our next step is to expand our product Connect, America’s first free prison video-conferencing platform, nationwide — as we do this, mobile technology will allow our users, wherever they are, to call and see their incarcerated loved ones using our products.