Ameelio, a nonprofit startup that plans to replace paid video calls by inmates in prisons with a free service, is making inroads against companies that have dominated the space for decades. With 9 facilities operational in Iowa and ongoing discussions with dozens more ahead of a planned launch in 2022, the company may soon usher in a fundamental change in the way incarcerated people access communication and education. .
Founded less than two years ago, Ameelio was aimed at the appeal system from the start, but started out by offering a web and mobile service to send letters to inmates, which is usually a surprisingly difficult process.
“We had maybe 8,000 users when we spoke to you, and a few months later we launched our mobile app. Today, we host some 300,000 users, in every state and some territories, ”said Uzoma Orchingwa, founder and CEO of the company. But while letter writing is a useful service, the team’s efforts have been focused on developing and testing the suite of digital products they hope to deliver across the country starting next year.
By building their own technology stacks and shifting the resulting costs (much lower than the market) to inmates, Ameelio offers an attractive alternative to the totally obsolete systems of most prisons today.
Many may not be aware that a handful of for-profit companies provide nearly all of the for-profit video calling services used by the country’s often for-profit prisons, which collect a share of that tainted revenue. . Securus and Global Tel have been providing calling services for a long time, and their business practices have been described by former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as “the clearest and most egregious type of market failure I have ever had.” have never seen as a regulator ”.
While costing next to nothing to provide, calls can cost inmates as much as a dollar a minute – exorbitant a decade ago, but frankly criminal today, while free video calls are a staple feature. that we all expect for free or for a small fee. Deeply unpopular Securus is in the midst of a rebranding (to “Aventis”) and potentially a SPAC deal to reinvent itself and purge the past, like Facebook and Blackwater. But the zebra can’t change its stripes, and all that.
Not only that, but the clients – that is, the correctional services that contract with these companies – are starting to doubt the value of the services provided. The pandemic has resulted in in-person visits being suspended and being temporarily replaced by free video calls, and Ameelio’s technical director, Gabriel Saruhashi, has said many DOCs would prefer it to stay that way. The old, rather unethical way of charging inmates and sharing the income is becoming more and more untenable in the modern age, and they are more interested in keeping it simple.
Orchingwa explained that they have structured Ameelio as a turnkey system for the level of involvement chosen by a facility or service. The cumbersome RFP system for selecting state-owned paid service providers can be a barrier to large-scale adoption, but Ameelio can be used as a basic replacement for free video calling platforms like Google. Meet; In fact, Louisville Metro DOC has moved to free communications with Ameelio without the need for legislation, an important precedent to explore.). Later, if desired, the company can also provide the required and regulated planning, storage and security services for a fee.
This would come well, well below quotes from existing suppliers. This is because the whole problem has turned from a telecommunications problem to a technology problem, and “They are not tech companies,” Orchingwa said. “Their products haven’t changed for two decades.
Instead, they buy companies to jump into their existing services or pay for standard technology like Twilio. So to pay for the service in the first place, and then provide the state their share, and still come out on top, they have to charge as much as the market will support it. And since the market is largely made up of disenfranchised prisoners and their families – not exactly of the lobbying type – complaints can be more or less completely quashed. The result is poor service at maximum price.
“We don’t have that pressure,” Orchingwa said. “We are a lean startup and we do everything in-house. “
“We use a lot of open source technology, which is part of the reason our costs are so low,” Saruhashi said. “They use Twilio, we use Mediasoup; the only thing we pay for the waiters. And we’re using Kubernetes, so our total cost is currently around $ 100 per month.
They also created their own hardware, standard Android tablets with custom enclosures that can very easily be provisioned and deployed anywhere there is wi-fi. Facilities looking to replace landlines love being able to shut down a dozen phones and bring in five dozen tablets, which make video and audio calls possible. Video calls need to be scheduled and recorded (by Ameelio or someone else), but audio can be done anytime, and having a service and a device to do both streamlines things.
The last area where Ameelio hopes to get things done is education. Currently, there is a real mishmash of education systems available to inmates. Sometimes security requirements mean paper resources or homework must be physically brought in and picked up by a school representative (something we talked about in the TC: Justice sessions this summer). In some places there is a virtual service, but accessible only at certain times or with limited topics. As interesting as an English literature course may be, not all inmates are interested in getting their baccalaureate, perhaps preferring to learn a trade.
The same tablets that provide audio and video calls – and of course other services like telehealth, official communications, text messaging, etc. – would be the platform for education or simply reading. Orchingwa said there was great interest from both sides of the market (educators and DOCs, to say nothing of the inmates themselves, who have fought for this for decades), but that digitization has been a slow process.
“There are grants available, but no education platform,” he said. “The news is that Ameelio is actually doing it, in two facilities and we just signed our first county. LinkedIn Learning, Masterclass, PBS, we download thousands of books from Gutenberg. We are also trying to do vocational training; we have identified CDL [commercial drivers license] the training is interesting, and we conducted it outside with about fifty formerly incarcerated students with computer literacy problems, using the app to study.
Everything is still on the horizon, but it is telling that in the short time that has passed since its founding, Ameelio has already taken over many facilities from the incumbent operators in the industry who made their debut in the years. 80. This is an industry ripe for change and many stakeholders are ready to try something new, even if it means rocking the boat a bit.
Although Ameelio intends to fund himself by acting as a provider of commercial services that states already pay (recording and storing video calls) and charging lawyers for secure private calls instead of inmates or families. , it will remain free for users. “Ameelio will always exist as a non-profit organization. We are committed to never charging families to communicate with loved ones and will always maintain our nonprofit inmate services. We don’t believe that a for-profit model that relies on inmates is justifiable, ”Orchingwa said.
It does help, however, to have a few allies with deep pockets. Orchingwa mentioned Jack Dorsey, Vinod Khosla, Eric Schmidt, Brian Acton, Sarah and Rich Barton, Devin and Cindy Wenig, Kevin Ryan and Draper Richards Kaplan as people who currently support Ameelio, and that True Ventures has also provided grants to him. The company is working on a planned funding round of $ 25 million to help them get through the next few years as they build their own revenue streams.
The idea that an incarcerated person can – and should – have a device that allows them to communicate securely and even spontaneously with their loved ones and legal representation, as well as to access educational resources and other services, seems pretty obvious. But the market, lobbying and industry that define it have thwarted this path for a long time. Ameelio has only just gained momentum but in a few years could be the provider of a free platform (like in beer, like in speech, maybe even like in free software) which will provide it to this perpetually mistreated population.