By Melissa Wade
In order to communicate with an incarcerated loved one, just for 15 minutes, you might have to pay upwards of $25. Those 15 minutes might be all you can afford; they might be your only option for connection as well, since about 63% of those locked up are jailed over 100 miles away from their families. And if you want to chat just 15 minutes a week, you are wracking up a bill of over $1,300 a year. Because of this high cost, many families struggle to afford to stay in touch with those locked up, stripping them of the support they may so desperately need from the ones who love them the most.
Ameelio, a communications delivery service, has been set up to disrupt this high cost, to undermine the $1.2 billion prison telecommunications industry, and to prioritize users over profits. The organization allows users to send free communication to incarcerated friends and family members across the country, servicing all correctional and immigrant detention facilities in the United States. For phoebe’s Incarcerated Writer’s Project, the application has become our personal, electronic courier to incarcerated Americans, handling our bulk mail, organizing our contacts, and easing our collaboration between facilities and our journal.
I spoke with Ameelio’s Emma Gray and Uzoma Orchingwa to gain a bit more insight into the program and the impact it’s made.
MW: What is the mission of Ameelio?
Gray: Ameelio is a nonprofit technology company committed to transforming prison communications. Through free letters, postcards, and video calling, we’re supporting meaningful connections between incarcerated people and their loved ones outside. Our vision is to disrupt the captive $1.2B prison telecommunications industry, decouple incarceration and profit, and reduce recidivism.
MW: What got you interested in starting a service like this for incarcerated Americans and their families?
Orchingwa: My commitment to criminal justice reform dates back to my early teens, when several of my childhood friends were incarcerated. It is not merely the fact of their incarceration that troubles me; it is that their race and socio-economic status almost guaranteed this outcome. 1 in 4 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Meanwhile, children in families experiencing incarceration are demonstrably more likely to become incarcerated, due in part to financial, psychological, and emotional strain.
Despite research demonstrating the beneficial effects of increased contact on decreasing recidivism and lowering the likelihood that children in families experiencing incarceration become incarcerated themselves, maintaining such communication is not an industry priority. Instead, companies whose only interest is reaping profits decide which families are allowed to stay in touch: those who can afford to pay unreasonably high rates for phone calls or drive long distances for in-person visitation.
The inhumanity of our justice system falls heavy not only on those it incarcerates, but on their spouses, children, parents, and friends. The ripple effects of incarceration destroy communities like mine. I truly believe that Ameelio can reduce the inevitability of intergenerational incarceration, and inspire others to innovate alongside us to eliminate it entirely.
What’s the impact you’ve experienced through the work of this project?
Gray: We have connected over 8,000 users to their incarcerated loved ones for free and we have sent over 36,000 letters free of cost. Below are some testimonials from our users:
“This is the most amazing blessing I could have received . It costs so much money for phone calls and I have to sacrifice one or more basic needs to pay . 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 for caring enough to actually make a difference . May God bless each and every person that has created Ameelio in very special ways every day.”
“It is a blessing to loved ones to be able to communicate with our family especially during these times. I’m grateful for finding Ameelio. I especially like the fact that we can send a picture with our letter. My boyfriend loves when I write him and always wants pictures. So this is perfect for us.”
“My name is Carol. I am totally blind. Before hearing about you and your organization. I was only able to talk with my son and nephew on the phone, and mail cards. This has allowed me to be able to write to them every day. I’m so excited. I have shared it with at least six others. I know that the others would make fun of my writing, and calls my son and nephew problems that they do not need. Thanks again.”