Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa ’14 always carries a reminder of life’s unfairness: a photo of his seventh-grade basketball team. Despite playing the same sport and attending the same Connecticut school, their varying circumstances led them down significantly different paths.
Of the nine boys in that photograph, four were eventually incarcerated.
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“The fact that I end up at Cambridge [University] and they end up incarcerated was not destiny,” said Orchingwa, whose close friends’ experience served as a wake-up call about injustices prevalent in society. “It was a matter of the social conditions that America creates and allows to harbor.”
And among those conditions are injustices for incarcerated people and their families. So Orchingwa decided to solve one of their many challenges: staying in touch.
He cofounded Ameelio, a nonprofit that includes a website and an app to support the flow of information and correspondence between incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside—all for free. Why such a need? Because in jails and prisons, everything costs more than on the outside. A single phone call? Up to $25. Video calls? As high as $1 per minute. An email? Thirty cents to a dollar.
Until Ameelio, there wasn’t a free, not-for-profit alternative to prison communications that millions of people depend on every single day. It’s a business that generates approximately $1.2 billion per year and profits mainly two companies.
“Having this duopoly charge families exorbitant fees to stay connected is not only immoral, it’s also just impractical and irrational,” said Orchingwa, who garnered financial support for Ameelio from well-known tech minds like Jack Dorsey and organizations like the Mozilla Foundation. “Because data shows that the more contact you have with your loved ones and the more support you have, the better you’re going to do post-release.”
He began to see that overpriced prison communications were more than a matter of exploitation—they exacerbated mass incarceration, which already disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income people.
“I think that these companies are on the wrong side of history,” he said. “And that’s how we [Ameelio] are going to outcompete them.”
Ameelio, derived from the verb ameliorate (to make a bad or unpleasant situation better), is a nonprofit organization cofounded by Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa ’14 and Gabe Saruhashi. Ameelio’s website and app allow free communications between incarcerated people and the outside world. It’s part of a growing movement Orchingwa calls “tech-lash,” employing technology to solve social issues.
Launched in April 2020, Ameelio users can electronically create postcards, upload photos, type letters, or send sudoku puzzles, inspirational quotes, recipes, news stories, and more to incarcerated people serving time anywhere in the country. A third-party company prints those electronic submissions and mails them to facilities the old-fashioned way—by snail mail, the only form prisons accept mail. To date, Ameelio has reached 85,000 users from across the United States and abroad and sent more than 310,000 letters to incarcerated people.
Ameelio also serves as a distribution center, sending relevant information from organizations working with incarcerated people. Its outreach projects inspired by current events included sending voting registration forms in Maine and Georgia during last year’s election, providing resources on how to receive stimulus payments, and sending an explanation of the Covid-19 vaccine in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
And recently, Ameelio went one step further with its “Connect” platform, the first-ever free prison video-calling platform, launched June 22 at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. Connect enables video calling and e-messaging between loved ones and incarcerated people. “This will be a major blow to the predatory status quo,” Orchingwa said.
Connect allows incarcerated people to have 30 minutes of video calls and also access e-messaging every day free of charge. Pilot programs will soon operate in facilities in Colorado and Massachusetts. “This is just the beginning,” he said. “We plan to scale our platform across the country and to launch new products that will further our mission to create a more humane and rehabilitative corrections system.” By the end of this year, this platform will support about 40,000 incarcerated people.
Ameelio’s innovation and positive contributions are turning heads.
From Forbes to the Washington Post to Business Insider, Ameelio’s work has gained national attention. It’s also received support from big names in the tech world, including Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla. And Ameelio recently won Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Award in its Social Justice category.
“We were really fortunate to get the support of tech founders and foundations who, clearly, understand that software scales and software is an incredibly powerful tool to change systems,” said Orchingwa. Thus far, Ameelio has raised more than $2.2 million, with tech leaders and organizations, including Google, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Robin Hood Foundation, putting their resources behind it.
Managing Director of Blue Ridge Labs at Robin Hood Bill Cromie began working with Orchingwa and Saruhashi through Robin Hood’s catalyst program, which provides early-stage organizations with resources to ensure they have a strong start. “We’ve supported 28 teams in our history, and 26 of them are still operating, and they’re all across the spectrum of scale and size,” said Cromie, seeing Ameelio’s potential as a long-lasting, impactful organization.
Cromie was impressed not just with Ameelio’s passion and dynamism, but also its ability to creatively apply existing technological tools to solve a prolonged issue, mass incarceration, which he believes is one of society’s greatest sins.
“People often say things like, ‘Oh, communication, it’s just helping people talk. That’s not such a big deal.’ But I really think it’s how systems change,” Cromie said. “It’s how you recognize that a better world is possible.”
Over the years, his friends’ experiences sparked Orchingwa’s interest to better understand the United States criminal justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The U.S. alone has a quarter of the global prison population.
At Colby, he plunged into the nature of incarceration, examining its role in society and how race plays into it, through a philosophy honors thesis. At the University of Cambridge, his criminology master’s enabled him to investigate the history and causes of U.S. mass incarceration. Later, working at a New Haven nonprofit, he helped formerly incarcerated people transition back into society. Now, as a J.D. and M.B.A. joint degree student at Yale University, he explores the issue from law and economics angles.
With his unique combination of educational experiences, a clear view of the issue came into focus.
“A lot of people look at the criminal justice system as a solely social justice issue,” said Orchingwa. To him, it all came down to economics. “Because the vast majority of people in prison are from the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.”
This economics-driven outlook, he believed, gave him tangible tools to try to solve at least one problem in what he saw as a massively broken system. “We knew who the bad actors were,” he said, referring to the duopoly. “We knew what the effects of their actions were and what the potential impact would be if we changed the status quo.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that Orchingwa set out to tackle societal problems or strived to make the world a better place. Orchingwa believes he was “born with a more conscious sensibility,” nurtured by his experiences as a child.
Born in Chicago the third of four sons, he moved with his physician father and nurse mother to their native Nigeria when Orchingwa was an infant. The family settled in Aba, a southern commercial hub he described as having much-wasted potential. It was a city with dire conditions, broken roads, and civic dysfunction. And most of its population lived below the poverty line. Experiencing that challenging environment in his early childhood greatly influenced his being.
In Nigeria, he remembered seeing other kids less fortunate than him because of their families or place of birth. At home, stories about his parents’ experience as Igbos—a small ethnic group in Nigeria—and survivors of the civil war in 1967 further shaped his worldview. “That always has been at the core of who I was.” So was a passion for finding solutions to those social ills spotted at an early age.
When his family moved to West Hartford, Conn., for better opportunities, Orchingwa began to notice inequalities in a new context and country. He started to realize how the law could be a vehicle to bring about important social change. At the same time, he craved to discern the structures governing social injustices.
“I felt that in order to be an intellectual, whatever pursuit one has, it was crucial to find out what the foundational thinking was,” he said. If he wanted to understand the American constitutional system, he thought, he ought to read philosophers John Locke and David Hume.
As a result, he pursued a philosophy and sociology double major at Colby. And his interest in the criminal justice system began to surface academically, too.
“He’s been thinking about that set of issues for quite a long time,” said Professor of Philosophy Jill Gordon, who met Orchingwa as a Colby sophomore, supervised his honors thesis on incarceration, and continued to support him after graduation.
“He is one of the most driven and ambitious, in the good sense, people I think I’ve ever known,” said Gordon, who is wowed, but not surprised, by Orchingwa’s accomplishments before reaching his 30s. His accolades include winning a prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship to study at Cambridge, and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. “He just excels at everything he does.”
Reading philosophical and sociological texts exposed him to “ideas to which I was then able to expand through action,” which he didn’t lose any time putting to practice.
His first place of action? Mayflower Hill.
With his like-minded peers, he spoke up about issues of race and gender on campus and advocated for improved conditions for College custodians. “It was a tremendously great learning experience as I was starting to develop what it meant to be a leader,” Orchingwa said. It turned out that he was a natural at it.
He spoke out at campus events, calling attention to students’ and community’s needs for a more equitable campus. To raise further awareness about on-campus issues, Orchingwa turned to his interest in film and produced Black on the Hill with other Colby students. His close friend Shane Rogers ’15 recalled the days when Orchingwa was tucked away in the Lovejoy computer lab, editing the film until three in the morning.
“Zo is just a guy who I think was always wanting the best out of people and institutions that existed in society and thinking that they can always do better,” said Rogers, who met Orchingwa as a high school senior when he visited Colby and has been looking up to him ever since. “I think that was the same thing at Colby.”
Both basketball players, aspiring lawyers, and passionate about criminal justice, their friendship blossomed. They started Colby’s Charles Hamilton Houston Law Club, named after the prominent African-American lawyer, and had many Friday night discussions on how to solve societal issues.
“I think he’s probably the smartest person I have been in a room with,” Rogers said. “And I don’t mean just knowledgeable. I really think when he sees a problem and an issue, he thinks about it in a very profound and deliberate way.”
Fast-forward several years, when Orchingwa proposed an alternative to alter prison communications through Ameelio, Rogers, now an associate at the Washington, D.C.-based legal firm Covington & Burling LLP, jumped on board as an advisor.
Yale undergraduate Gabe Saruhashi wasn’t so sure. When first contacted by Orchingwa in February 2020, he thought there was something different about the idea, but “I was, for sure, not going to join as a cofounder.”
Little did he know.
The two met up at a coffee shop in New Haven for a conversation. Saruhashi, a computer science and psychology double major from Brazil, was astonished to learn the grave conditions of prison communications and the power of the duopoly. When Orchingwa told him, “I think we can take them down by providing free communications,” it struck a chord.
“That’s something that really resonated with me,” said Saruhashi, a skilled programmer with an interest in communication products who eventually became Ameelio’s cofounder. “The reason why I started doing computer science was I felt I would be able to serve the people who needed it the most through scalable technology.”
Bonded by their passion, this duo against a duopoly soon had volunteers joining their team from different corners of the country.
Following months of building Ameelio part time, Saruhashi and Orchingwa put their studies on hold to focus on the organization full time. Others on the team followed, pausing career plans and turning down job offers.
While the dedicated team worked to get Ameelio up and running, Orchingwa brought on board influential mentors who supported and rallied behind its cause.
Angel Steger, Facebook’s director of product design, for instance, joined Ameelio’s board and stepped in to help when its model of unlimited free communications proved unsustainable. An expert on product development and business growth, Steger guided them through data analysis to identify a reasonable number of free communication products while serving a growing user base. “There are 27 million people that could potentially use this platform,” said Saruhashi. “One in two Americans have someone who has been impacted by incarceration.”
In addition to Steger, Ameelio’s board of advisors includes several directors of leading tech companies as well as founders of impact-making organizations, such as DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter leader and Campaign Zero cofounder; Mozilla Corporation’s Studio Leads Bart Decrem and Bijan Marashi; and Alyssa Tamboura, founder of Walls to Bridges, inspired by her own experiences as a child of an incarcerated father.
Besides bringing on new team members, Orchingwa, like the rest of the team, wears many hats on a day-to-day basis. He meets with potential funders and partners, pitches Ameelio to Department of Corrections officials across the country, speaks with journalists and lawyers, and strategizes with team members over Slack, where messages flow in one after another.
The team’s success has started to reflect in numbers. Ameelio currently has six full-time employees. And its app is rated at 4.9 out of five on the App Store and 4.7 on Google Play Store whereas other for-profit apps with similar services are around two.
The cofounders attribute their success not only to their team but also to their continuous effort to maintain close contact with users, a strategy that Saruhashi said comes from the Silicon Valley playbook. Ameelio began to design features according to their users’ feedback and improve their product.
To grow even further, Ameelio began connecting with other nonprofits working with incarcerated people, such as Represent Justice and PEN America, where Robert Pollock, prison writing program manager, mails materials to incarcerated people about their offerings. When the pandemic made going to the post office a real challenge, PEN America joined forces with Ameelio, which took its physical mailing efforts digital.
Pollock comes into his work with a unique understanding as he himself served a 10-year sentence and understands what it means to receive letters in his name.
In prison, mail isn’t a private matter, he explained. Mailroom staff reads, screens, and copies mail before delivering it publicly with everyone knowing who receives mail from outside. “It’s a social information marker, like the number of followers you have on your Twitter account,” he said. But that marker has implications for accountability in case one gets mistreated, for instance. “It has such an outsized impact.”
Even though Ameelio currently only offers communications products, in the long run it aspires to provide other resources as well.
“What we’re trying to do is build this technological ecosystem that is going to allow incarcerated people to start charting their path to successful reentry from day one,” said Orchingwa. “Either be it through … using our platform to learn, to get mental health services, or to get job opportunities—that’s our north star.”
Because unless incarcerated people can access the resources they need to succeed upon release, the vicious cycle of recidivism won’t be broken.
“I believe that we won’t sustainably and safely reduce prison systems unless we arm and provide the folks who are going to be incarcerated with the resources they need to succeed when they are released,” Orchingwa said.
As he shapes Ameelio’s trajectory, Orchingwa is also thinking about his career goals with an eye toward running for public office in Connecticut; and he appears to already have the aura of a skilled politician.
“This state is ground zero for a lot of the issues that I’m passionate about,” he said, noting Connecticut’s ranking as one of the top states with the highest income inequality. “I think this would be a great place to really try to solve these issues and to have it be an example for the rest of the country.”
But until he can make that happen, he will continue to find other solutions through tech and its smart re-applications for deep societal problems.
“I’m constantly trying to identify problems and inefficiencies that exist,” he said, “and trying to figure out ways that either with the skills I have can solve them or bring people together to solve them.”
Reviving Connection to Life
Until her boyfriend went to jail, Valerie Parrigin Barlow was unfamiliar with the prison system and the cost of having a loved one incarcerated.
“I didn’t know how expensive it all is,” she said from a laundromat in Tennessee where she was doing laundry for additional income. “To me, it’s really taking advantage of the families because we’re on the outside and we’re the ones paying all this.”
To cover the costs, Barlow had to take on two part-time jobs on top of her regular full-time job in hospice care. While her earnings from one part-time job go to covering communication costs, the other is for the commissary.
A couple of months ago, she discovered Ameelio through her boyfriend, who heard about it from other incarcerated people. “It’s helped quite a bit,” said Barlow. Saving on postage costs with Ameelio, she’s used that money toward making more phone calls and sometimes video chats that cost $10 for 20 minutes.
“I think it’s [Ameelio] the greatest thing ever,” she said. She’s looking forward to its new video call feature, Connect. “It’s going to help so many families stay in touch with a prisoner because they really need that outside [connection] from their families.”
Casey Nixon Clark from Ohio agreed. “It is expensive to have a loved one in prison.”
Clark has been using Ameelio to stay in touch with her brother Daniel, who went to prison more than two decades ago. Ever since she came upon Ameelio, she’s spread the word to those around her, including her sister, her Facebook friends, and her husband, whose uncle is in prison.
One day, she made a post on Facebook asking others to send messages to her brother through Ameelio. “People forget about people in prison,” she said. But she wanted to make sure her brother knew that there are still people loving and caring for him. Her post resulted in a flow of photos and notes from people that her brother hadn’t heard from in years. “We both got emotional,” she said, her voice trembling about her phone call with her brother afterward. “He said [to me], ‘I tried to shut out the world, and I’ve seen photos of people and life and it brings things back.”
Old photos of family, new photos of her children, some nature shots, Clark tries to send something through Ameelio to her brother as much as possible. And the app has been as convenient as sending a text message, revamping yesterday’s outdated method of snail mail with today’s technology.
“There is so much that’s wrong with the prison system,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing what they started. I just hope that it stays and it grows.”
Read other stories on prison communications:
- “Out Of Prison But Still Trapped: Examining The ‘Afterlife’ Of Incarceration,” Terry Gross, NPR, March 24, 2021
- “‘You Have One Minute Remaining.’ Why I’ll Always Drop Everything to Answer My Brother’s Calls From Prison,” Reuben Jonathan Miller, Time, Feb. 16, 2021
- “The Cost of Calling My Mom From Prison,” John J. Lennon, New York Times, Feb. 12, 2021
- “The Biden FCC Needs to Tackle Exorbitant Jail and Prison Call Prices,” Kiran Misra, Slate, Dec. 21, 2020
- “Making a Phone Call from Behind Bars Shouldn’t Send Your Family into Debt,” Sylvia A. Harvey, Politico, Sept. 29, 2020
- “Locked up during COVID-19: Costly phone calls strain families,” Avi Asher-Schapiro, Reuters, Sept. 23, 2020
- “Op-Ed: When jails make money off phone calls, society pays,” Anne Stuhldreher, Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2020
- “Many families struggle to pay for phone calls with loved ones in U.S. prisons,” Lindsey Pipia, NBCNews, Dec. 31, 2019
- “‘Free’ Tablets Are Costing Prison Inmates a Fortune,” Tonya Riley, Mother Jones, Oct. 5, 2018
- “The High Cost of Calling the Imprisoned,” Timothy Williams, New York Times, March 30, 2015
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