Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Uzoma Orchingwa is the co-founder of Ameelio, a technology nonprofit. Uzoma is a Nigerian-American who holds a JD from the Yale Law School and an MBA from the Yale School of Management, as well as an MPhil from the University of Cambridge. We asked Uzoma more about how Ameelio leverages technology to re-connect incarcerated people with their families for free:
How did you come up with the idea for Ameelio? What was the impetus or inspiration behind its creation?
Growing up, I experienced the destructive impacts of the criminal justice system as many of my childhood friends were incarcerated. That ignited my academic focus on criminology and mass incarceration. I received an MPhil in Criminology at the University of Cambridge, where I had the opportunity to examine the history, causes, and possible solutions to the crisis of mass incarceration.
In my academic work, I also discovered that while 91% of Amerians support criminal justice reform, most reform efforts have focused exclusively on drug war legislative changes, overlooking the carceral experience and the destructive forces and bad actors that have converged to keep the system bloated and profitable.
The average time served by incarcerated persons in the US is over three-years, and during that time the incarcerated and their loved ones are exploited by a great number of predatory companies capitalizing on their struggle. My research led to the sober realization that the worst of these actors is the little known $3 billion prison communications industry, which is dominated by just two companies. A 15-minute phone call runs as steep as $25, driving one in three families with incarcerated loved ones into debt.
Yet, a wealth of studies show that staying in contact with loved ones while on the inside is essential for staying out of prison post-release—family connection reduces recidivism by up to 56%.
That’s why I started Ameelio: to leverage technology to re-connect incarcerated people with their families, for educational opportunities, and for other critical services — for free. And to empower them with the tools they can use to chart a successful and sustained pathway to reintegration and flourishing.
How did your participation in the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship impact your ability to start the company?
The PD Soros community has been a source of inspiration, guidance, and support for me from day one. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kaveh, Javier, Sanjena, David, Victor, Roxana, and the others who have been a part of this journey.
How is Ameelio supporting incarcerated folks during the holidays? Does the work change or increase in December?
While the holidays are a great time of joy for us in the free world, for the incarcerated it can serve as a painful reminder of the love, family, and opportunities they have left behind. At Ameelio, we work incredibly hard to uplift the incarcerated and their loved ones during this bittersweet season.
Our communication platforms see a major spike in usage during the holidays, and as such, our engineers must dedicate increased time to ensure that our users’ experience is seamless and undisturbed. In addition, we lead efforts to encourage families who may have lost touch with their incarcerated loved ones to use our tools to re-connect.
I want to share the story from one of our users:
“For me, communication via voice or video call is very important since my son is only six years old and does not know that his father is in prison. My family suffers a lot, but having closer contact using Ameelio helps them feel they have not forgotten about each other.”
We help incarcerated people stay in contact with their loved ones during the holiday season — Christmas and Thanksgiving especially. But more importantly, incarcerated people can be on a call for critical life moments throughout the year like birthdays, graduations, even birth deliveries, or end of life goodbyes. It is a great responsibility that we cherish as a company to help relationships at their best and worst moments.
Learn more about Ameelio at https://www.ameelio.org/. ■