by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 28 February 2021
Introducing: Uzoma Orchingwa
Background: Social entrepreneur and law student using technology to solve society’s most challenging problems.
Idea: Building free-to-use communications technology to disrupt the prison telecommunications duopoly and create a more humane and rehabilitative corrections system.
The U.S. criminal justice system is broken. In the “land of the free”, more people are incarcerated than anywhere else on the planet, and for most, it is not a one-time visit: 76.6% return within five years. While studies demonstrate that incarcerated people who communicate regularly with their support networks have better outcomes upon release, families who commit to sustaining contact and support loved ones through a journey of growth and rehabilitation are heavily burdened by blatant profiteering.
It costs up to $25 for a fifteen-minute talk with your incarcerated parent, sibling, or child by phone, and $1 to send or receive a text. The high cost of connecting with a loved one in prison puts one in three families into debt: a destructive financial burden disproportionately falling on the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Meanwhile, the $1.2 billion prison telecommunications industry boasts 50% profit margins, and prison facilities perpetuate a damaging duopoly by awarding exclusive contracts in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks and commissions.
Uzoma Orchingwa is building Ameelio, a free-to-use communications platform designed to end the predatory prison communications industry, and create a more humane and rehabilitative corrections system.
With free letters, postcards, and video calling, Ameelio enables families to maintain meaningful connections with their incarcerated loved ones. The platform also enables educational programs and criminal justice organisations to amplify their impact, with support to connect with the incarcerated over video calls, send mass, organise volunteers and conduct targeted outreach.
The Ameelio platform is a first step towards decoupling incarceration from profit. As a result, Ameelio will improve incarcerated people’s post-release outcomes, break the resulting cycle of intergenerational harm, and bring much-needed humanity to America’s brutal carceral system.
“Ameelio has sent over 300,000 letters so far,” explains Uzoma. “We have more than 85,000 users and will soon be launching Connect, the nation’s first free prison video conferencing platform. Video calls are a vital mode of communication between the incarcerated and their families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“But there are many challenges to entering the prison telecommunications space. The companies behind this duopoly pay kickbacks and commissions to state and local governments to entrench their control. Although great progress has been made to outlaw this practice in some states, others are still tied to these funding sources. This adds to the difficulty of convincing facilities to move away from the duopoly.”
Uzoma Orchingwa: “Ameelio’s user demographic represents populations that have been the victims of social and economic inequality. I believe open practice and communication is paramount to the policy of empathy with which we seek to make a difference. As the platform grows, maintaining open communication with our users will remain a top priority.”
“This space has infinite opportunities for change and growth. I am committed to opening resources and knowledge for others who seek to follow in my footsteps and disrupt this harmful and backwards industry.”
Regardless of your views of prison as a place of punishment or rehabilitation, its primary functions are to keep communities safe and persuade people to act within the law. By any measure, recidivism levels in the U.S. indicate the current system is failing. A course change is long overdue and well-supported. But while the new government administration makes positive noises and appears to have an appetite for change, powerful interests are keen to retain the status quo. As yet, it’s unclear how the change will manifest.
Ameelio is a highly practical contribution to this incredibly nebulous discussion and brings together arguments from both sides of the political spectrum. At its heart, the platform fights against exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised and an unjust justice system. But it also communicates a powerful message of reducing repeat criminality and makes an economic argument against a rigged system that has little in common with a free market. We are excited to bring Uzoma into the fellowship and look forward to learning with him as he lays the foundations for a more just prison system.