How much does it cost to talk to a loved one who is incarcerated in America? Depending on the state you’re in, you might have to pay up to $25 for a 15-minute phone call. It’s not surprising that a third of families with incarcerated loved ones go into debt simply trying to stay in touch with them.
For Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa, the “extremely exploitative” cost of communications for people who are incarcerated is unacceptable. “It damages low-income families by extracting resources and harms communities because the less contact someone who is incarcerated has with loved ones, the more likely they are to recidivate.”
Orchingwa, who has a degree in criminology and is a joint-degree student at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management, considered how to bring change to this under-served community. In the spring of 2020, he co-founded Ameelio, America’s first non-profit prison communications platform.
“It damages low-income families by extracting resources and harms communities because the less contact someone who is incarcerated has with loved ones, the more likely they are to recidivate.” — Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa
The organization provides a free service for users to send letters, postcards, and other mail items to incarcerated loved ones.
“Our vision is to disrupt the prison telecommunications industry, outcompeting incumbents by providing services that prioritize users over profits,” said Orchingwa.
He says the $1.3 billion prison telecommunications industry is one of the most under-reported bad actors in the criminal justice space. Many telecommunications systems pay commissions to prison systems to get exclusive access. “Private equity knows they have a captive market and there’s no other method to stay in touch with family except what prisons provide,” he said.
“We decided to focus on the 11 states that don’t have commission schemes and make it challenging for the status quo to continue by introducing a free alternative.”
How Ameelio works
When users sign up for Letters for Families for free, they can write a message with up to 9,000 characters and attach photos and even send games through Ameelio’s website or mobile app. They can then track their letter’s progress as it makes its way through the USPS until their incarcerated loved one receives a hard copy of the letter.
So far, Ameelio has served more than 220,000 families and sent over 1 million pieces of mail to over 250,000 people who are incarcerated. The organization plans to scale to 10 states by the end of 2022.
Ameelio also has a Letters for Organizations feature, which helps enable criminal justice, news organizations, voting groups, and other interested parties to connect with people who are incarcerated to help them in various ways.
In June of this year, the nonprofit launched Connect Videoconferencing -- the nation's first free-to-use prison communication platform-- in Iowa prisons. In the Summer of 2022 they plan to launch Learn, an integrated prison education platform. Using Ameelio’s software, people in prison and their families steer clear of financial exploitation and are empowered to chart a path toward successful reentry into society. Ameelio provides multiple levels of benefit: first, increased contact with family and access to education while incarcerated reduces recidivism. And, displacing existing for-profit prison comms providers will help millions of families avoid falling into debt trying to keep in touch with incarcerated family members.
“Platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts aren’t designed for correctional settings because they don’t offer various security features that is required by DOCs. Our videoconferencing system has the safety and security that correctional facilities want while allowing face-to-face virtual connections for people who are incarcerated,” said Orchingwa.
Thousands of reviews of Ameelio, posted on Google Play and the App Store, share the impact the program has on its users. User Jess Torres wrote, “This site is a blessing… Your beautiful app has allowed me to share instantly our ‘outside’ family events, I can send a note and a photo and I can share on the ‘inside’ instantly and I’m not trying to print out the picture, find a stamp, fill out an envelope while trying to get kids to programs, head to work or rush around... all things we take for granted being out here but that prevent our person from knowing we think of them 24/7!”
In a December 2020 survey of 300 users, Ameelio found that they reduced mail costs by 74 percent, increased communication for 97 percent of respondents, and enabled 17 percent to send their first written communication to an incarcerated loved one.
The Letters for Organizations feature was instrumental in getting important election information to people who are incarcerated. “In Georgia, we sent voter registration resources to 20,000 people,” said Orchingwa, noting that certain states allow people who are incarcerated to retain the right to vote regardless of the crime for which they are convicted.
Ameelio is also working with organizations that share valuable information about applying for stimulus checks.
Zendesk helps Ameelio provide stellar customer service
Ameelio currently employs 10 people, including four software engineers, a product designer, and Ruhi Manek, Ameelio’s “rockstar customer service lead.”
“One of the reasons we want to be great at customer service is that this is a neglected community. The loved ones of incarcerated people feel alone. They don’t have a lot of resources and existing services are extremely unresponsive because they’re a captive market. They don’t put effort into responding to users,” said Lee.
Before Zendesk, Ameelio used Facebook as a main source of growth but wanted a better way to connect with its users.
“Zendesk has been instrumental in helping us collect ticket history, complaint history, get user testimonials, and try to increase response rates to streamline our customer service branch. It’s made my life quantifiably easier and improved our organization’s overall structure of user complaints, feedback, and outreach. It’s helped us centralize, identify trends, and grow as a company.”
“One of the reasons we want to be great at customer service is that this is a neglected community. The loved ones of incarcerated people feel alone.” — Eddie Lee
With a robust ticketing system, Ameelio staff are able to easily access users’ complaint history, categorize tickets by the type of complaint, and make details easier to retrieve and address. This line of sight allows them to reach out to users in an efficient, structured, and helpful way. The data the nonprofit is able to gather also helps it establish relationships with facilities or the departments of corrections that control them.
“We’re the highest rated prison communications app and that’s due to the great work of Eddie, but also Zendesk. Being able to quickly and immediately respond to our users makes all the difference as we serve our customers,” said Orchingwa.
“Having great customer service integrated through Zendesk allows us to have high ratings on the App Store and a good reputation.”
The glowing testimonials and high CSAT scores demonstrate the value of their service to states and departments of corrections, which is vital to Ameelio’s growth as an organization.
With ambitious plans for expansion and a strong commitment to support their users, Ameelio is counting on Zendesk to help the nonprofit achieve its goals in a smart, streamlined way.