Ameelio x KidsMates
By David Martoma, Age 11
Today, KidsMates is interviewing Uzoma (“Zo”) Orchingwa, Yale Law student and co-founder of Ameelio. Ameelio is a non-profit organization that allows friends and family to send free mail to their incarcerated loved ones.
Zo was shocked when he discovered that the prison communications industry was dominated by two for-profit companies: Securus and Global Tel Link. These billion-dollar companies charge incarcerated individuals up to $25 for 15 minutes of phone time. The cost of communicating with an incarcerated individual adds up to several hundred dollars a month and puts many already vulnerable families into debt.
That’s why Zo dreamed up Ameelio (short for “amelioration” and meaning “to make things better”). He and his co-founder wanted to make prison communications free. After seeing how hard it was for kids, like me, to stay in contact with their incarcerated parent during the coronavirus pandemic, Ameelio launched their free letters and postcards program. One day, they also hope to make prison video communication free.
After six years of communicating with my incarcerated dad, I know just how hard it can be to write to someone in prison! But, I also know how much my dad cherished every letter or photo I sent. Ameelio makes writing to an incarcerated loved one easy and free.
I’ve learned a lot about Zo and love his ambitious goals. I reached out to him to see if he would share some of his wisdom.
David: Hi, Zo. Thank you for joining KidsMates for this virtual chat. We're excited to learn all about Ameelio. Can you tell us how your interest in criminal justice led to founding Ameelio?
Zo: My passion for criminal justice reform dates back to my teenage years when several of my friends were incarcerated. Determined to find solutions, I decided to pursue a Masters of Philosophy in Criminology at the University of Cambridge (in England). Through my research, I realized that while it may take many years before we see major policy changes in the criminal justice sector, there were immediate ways of ameliorating the harsh conditions incarcerated people and their loved ones face every day.
Prison communications is one such area. The more I learned about the extortionate prices that the prison telecommunications duopoly was charging families affected by incarceration, the more I felt that something needed to be done. That is why I founded Ameelio. Through free prison communications services, Ameelio removes barriers to communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones and breaks cycles of intergenerational harm.
David: Wow, that’s game-changing! What’s the most important thing Ameelio has done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?
Zo: We launched Letters for Families in March, empowering loved ones to send free letters, photos, and postcards from our web and mobile applications. Ameelio uses an automated mailing service that prints, mails, and tracks users’ letters, all the way to the facility. Our app makes snail mail as easy as sending a text: users simply type up their letter, attach a photo, and click send. Since launching in late March, Ameelio has sent over 65,000 free letters to incarcerated loved ones, for more than 15,000 users. Our free letters service allows families affected by incarceration to keep in touch with ease.
COVID-19 and the indefinite suspension of in-person visitation at jails and prisons spurred us to launch Letters for Families as an immediate solution. Our long-term goal is to improve familial contact by developing Connect, the nation’s first free video calling platform for jails and prisons. We are currently sourcing a pilot site for the project, and we are committed to demonstrating that free video calling can and should be provided to families and friends. Existing providers charge extortionate rates for video calls; our mission is to make communication easy to access for families of incarcerated people by providing a free alternative.
David: We hope you continue to be successful. Where do you get all the great ideas?
Zo: Our best source of information for improving our platform is our users. When we first launched Letters for Families in March, we operated solely through a web application, and we only offered letters and photos. We interviewed over fifty users in our first three months of operation, and it quickly became clear that our letters were serving a larger purpose than we had originally anticipated. Our users lamented how limited the quality of their communication was due to current options (low-quality, costly phone calls; poor e-messaging), and described how their loved ones were starved for information and often struggling with mental health resulting from their isolation.
Motivated by these learnings, we sought to expand our users’ quality of expressiveness by building our product beyond letters and photos, offering a library of quotes, cartoons, prison art, games, and designs. We also launched our mobile application, expanding our reach and ensuring ease of access to our platform. In response to additional user feedback, we are looking to incorporate other features, such as puzzles and news clippings.
We are always looking to improve our services to increase meaningful interactions between families. Insights from our users are incredibly valuable for our continued development. We would love to learn more about how we can better serve children and youth populations, and about the kinds of features they would like to see added to our platform.
David: What issues do you think are most misunderstood about friends and families with an incarcerated loved one?
Zo: Parental incarceration affects nearly 2.7 million American children. When a parent is incarcerated, their children are punished too. Research suggests that due to limited contact with their parents and the other social costs borne of this reality, these children are more likely to become inmates themselves. Reduced contact with incarcerated parents often leads to psychological strains that affect the mental health and well-being of children and subject them to enduring stigma. Lack of communication with incarcerated parents worsens outcomes and is linked to increased aggression, depression, truancy, and poor performance in school.
I want to share with you an experience of our lead engineer, Jesse Horne, that really explains the day-to-day struggles of family’s dealing with incarceration:
“When my brother was arrested the first time, I wasn't at a financially stable point in life. I had a cell phone with a plan that was about to run out and I wasn't sure where I would be sleeping at night or how I'd even be able to feed myself. The 30-second free first call they let incarcerated people make in the jail went something like this..."Please answer the phone I just want to talk. Love ya bro." He tried calling me back a couple of times right after that and I couldn't answer it because I didn't have any money. The calls kept coming every day for a week and then would slow down. Then the calls just stopped. It was a wake-up call for me. The relationship between my brother and I was never the same after that. That experience damaged his trust in his family and in people in general.”
David: What a powerful story! Do you have any tips for children coping with this adversity?
Zo: Children should understand that they can break cycles of poverty, incarceration, and inequality. Just because they have a family member who is incarcerated or going through hard times, it does not mean that when they grow up they will be exposed to the same cruelties. They must know that they are the masters of their future, not a product of their circumstances.
Empowering children to maintain relationships with their incarcerated loved ones will ensure that they have the support they need as they learn and grow, and as they choose their life paths. Ameelio is here to lower the bar to communication: through free letters and video calling, we will ensure that children do not lose contact with their loved ones simply because of the costs of staying in touch.
David: You have such inspiring goals. Can you tell us what or who has inspired your thoughts on incarceration the most?
Zo: My mother. I have never met a more courageous and selfless person. She was forced to flee her village as a child during the Nigerian-Biafran War. While caring for multiple siblings and witnessing unthinkable atrocities along the way, she acquired a resolute life philosophy that she imparted to me: The world is convoluted, often difficult, and sometimes terrible, but despite its complexities, we are morally compelled to strive for good in the face of adversity.
David: What advice would you give to someone who hoped to make that same difference today?
Zo: There are so many different ways to make a difference. Advocacy efforts are often focused on enormous, big-picture problems. However, the struggle to make these important and necessary changes can take many years. In the interim, families are torn apart by the financial and psychological costs of incarceration. I developed Ameelio to address one piece of this puzzle, but there are many more problems that need to be addressed. Every single one of us can tackle big problems by contributing to smaller solutions. Every small step can make a difference to thousands of lives.
David: Thanks for joining us today, Zo! We look forward to seeing how Ameelio's story unfolds.
If you're interested in discovering more about Ameelio, visit them at www.ameelio.org.