Your job title:
Founder and CEO
Your organization name:
When was your organization founded?
In what city, town, or region are you located?New Haven, CT, USA
In what city, town, or region is your organization headquartered?New Haven, CT, USA
In which countries does your organization currently operate?
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
I am the founder of Ameelio, a nonprofit prison communications seeking to disrupt the prison telecommunications industry. Ameelio provides free communications tools for those who are impacted by incarceration. We are applying for the Elevate Prize at a pivotal point in our mission. Having successfully launched Letters, an application that allows users to send free letters to their incarcerated loved ones, we are moving to a revolutionary next step: Connect, the nation’s first free prison video calling platform.
Our team is currently on the ground in Des Moines, Iowa, installing free video visitation at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. In the next year, we will scale throughout the Iowa, Colorado and Illinois state prison systems. We anticipate providing free video calling to over 80,000 incarcerated people across more than 50 prisons. Our ultimate goal is to allow every incarcerated person in the U.S. to connect with their families at least once a day. To make that happen, we need to fundraise approximately $500,000 per state to acquire the necessary hardware and support our infrastructure for free communication. The Elevate Prize’s support would catalyze our expansion, supporting scalability that would drastically bolster incarcerated people’s contact with the outside.
Tell us about YOU:
My commitment to criminal justice dates back to my early teens, when several of my childhood friends were incarcerated. It is not merely the fact of their incarceration that troubles me; it is that their race and socio-economic status almost guaranteed this outcome. 1 in 4 Black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Meanwhile, children in families experiencing incarceration are more likely to become incarcerated, due in part to financial, psychological, and emotional strain. Incarceration falls heavy on the spouses, children, and friends of incarcerated people. The effects of incarceration destroy communities like mine. I started Ameelio to reduce intergenerational incarceration by lowering the barrier to family contact.
I am currently a joint-degree student at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management. Before Yale, I received an MPhil in Criminology at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar, focusing on reexamining the history of U.S. penal policy in pursuit of novel solutions. I realized that policy measures to decarcerate the U.S. are many years away from implementation. While reading reports about reducing recidivism, I encountered compelling research detailing the positive impact of increased communication on post-release outcomes. The idea for Ameelio was born there.
Pitch your organization.
Mass incarceration is expensive ($182b spent annually), destructive (160m Americans impacted), and ineffective (55% recidivism). Incarcerated people are barred from family contact by exploitative companies profiting from their incarceration. While the $1.2 billion prison telecommunications industry boasts 50% profit margins and prison facilities profit off kickbacks from these companies, one in three families falls into debt due to the high cost of calling an incarcerated loved one.
Decades of research demonstrate that family contact and education access dramatically improve incarcerated people’s post-release outcomes. Ameelio builds and deploys free-to-use communications technology to create a more humane and rehabilitative corrections system. Our first product, Letters is a free mobile app, through which 130,000 users have sent over 300,000 free letters and postcards to jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers across the U.S. This month, we launched Connect, the nation’s first free prison video-conferencing platform, connecting incarcerated people to their families, educators, and counselors.
Through our free communications tools, Ameelio liberates vulnerable families from the grips of exploitative monopolies, and creates a new, trusted communication channel between incarcerated people and their support networks outside. This is an essential first step towards building a rehabilitative justice system.
Describe what makes your work innovative.
Ameelio is the first nonprofit supporting free prison communications. A nonprofit model is essential to divorce profit from incarceration, and to best serve the needs of incarcerated people and their families. By reducing financial barriers to connection, we support low-income families and slow cycles of incarceration. By building the tools for data-driven reentry, we reduce recidivism and sustainably shrink prison populations. Additionally, we are laying the groundwork for more effective advocacy. As advocacy organizations like Worth Rises push to end kickback schemes nationwide, the existence of Ameelio’s free, nonprofit communications alternative serves as compelling evidence that there is a feasible alternative to the status quo – a model of prison communications which places families, not profits, first.
Ameelio also takes an innovative approach to decarceration. We recognize that policy changes will take a long time. In the meantime, those trapped in our justice system will continue to suffer its inhumanity. We begin with our products, ensuring that those who are behind bars have access to their families and to vital reentry resources. Long-term, we hope that our demonstrated success drives legislative change in additional states and counties, leading a movement away from predatory pricing and kickback schemes.
How and why is your organization having an impact on humanity?
Our products provide incarcerated people access to the outside, connecting them with their families, educational resources, mental health services, legal support, job interviews, and more. Access to these resources help incarcerated individuals develop workforce skills, enhance their education, and prepare for successful reentry. Ameelio ensures that people have the ability to improve their prospects upon release.
Our impact on humanity is one of increased equity. We recognize that the population we serve consists of many people of color. African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. The statistics after release are even more dismal; people of color have disproportionately higher rates of recidivism and struggle to reenter the job market.
Through our platforms, Ameelio helps ease the burdens of reentry, providing the tools needed to connect people with stable employment and housing. We are committed to racial justice and to breaking the cycle of incarceration that people of color are so often caught in. By providing communications tools, we empower incarcerated people to access the resources they need.
Select the key characteristics of the community your organization is impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your organization address?
Which of the following categories best describes your work?
Equity & Inclusion
How many people does your organization directly serve at present? How many do you anticipate serving in one year?
Ameelio currently serves 250,000 incarcerated people and their loved ones with free mail and provides free video calls to 1,000 incarcerated women and their families at the Iowa Correctional Institution for women.
In the coming year, we anticipate serving 1,000,000 incarcerated people and their loved ones with free mail and to provide free video calls to 130,000 incarcerated people and their loved ones.
Describe your impact goals and how you plan to achieve them.
Our core goals are:(1) improve the mental well-being of incarcerated people and their families, (2) significantly lower their communications costs, (3) reduce prison infractions, and (4) reduce recidivism. We are studying our impact alongside the University of Chicago, which is explored below. We are accessing these impacts by providing free communications, through video and email to incarcerated people and their families. A 56% reduction in recidivism is the conclusion of a metastudy of the impact of visitation on recidivism (Duwe & Clark, 2013). Our 13% first-year target is a conservative estimate of the reduction in recidivism available within the metastudy. It is an acceptable first-year target since our remedy, and our ability to encourage free family video calls, will improve over time and because of the difficulties of tracking recidivism in the short-term.
Ameelio is partnered with the University of Chicago to measure the overall impact of our platform. The team consists of Dr. Panka Bencisk (who specializes in the economics of crime, health, and mental health), Dr. Asha Arora (Research Director in the Crime and Education Labs), and Dr. Nour Abdul-Razzak (whose research focuses on social policies and programs that can reduce violence and improve life outcomes).
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and how do you plan to overcome them? How would winning the Elevate Prize help you to overcome these barriers?
Over the next 12 months our most critical need is to scale our ability to make an impact with our team. There are 12 states that don’t profit from prison communications and are inclined to adopt a solution that is free for families. We are prepared to serve the millions of incarcerated people and their family members that live in these states, but we need support to scale our team and impact.
The Elevate Prize would not only support us financially, but would empower us to reshape the messaging around prison communications. An underreported issue with little coverage in the media or public knowledge, the Elevate Prize’s recognition of Ameelio and our mission would bring much needed attention to the exploitation of prison communications.
How would you leverage the larger platform, audience, and brand recognition as an Elevate Prize winner to further advance your impact?
As mentioned in the last answer, prison communication is not an issue that many Americans or policy makers are aware of. Other matters of the prison industrial complex, such as private prisons, tend to get much more attention and public recognition. With the Elevate Prize’s support we’d be able to advance our impact by educating the larger public and engaging new audiences on the exploitative issue of prison communications, how it forces families into debt, and worsens recidivism. In turn, public education will assist us in driving policies that, like the banning of kickback schemes, which sustain the prison industrial complex and for-profit prison communications technology.
What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?
As an organization dedicated to addressing systemic issues in the criminal legal system, we are committed to proactively and aggressively tackling issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our very first hire was a formerly incarcerated software engineer and we continue to engage system-affected communities when recruiting team members.
Additionally, as a tech startup we are cognizant of the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the industry and how representation cannot be achieved with passive recruitment. That’s why we’ve engaged /dev/color and ColorStack to recruit candidates of color. We’ve also made it a point to recruit at HBCUs with Handshake, a campus recruiting platform.
As a very small team, our initial hires are critical toward setting a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusivity and establishing a positive leadership environment.
How are you and your team well-positioned to address the problem you are solving?
I come to the issue of prison communications with personal and professional insights. As a young man, I saw friends go to prison and experience the difficulties of staying in touch with their friends and loved ones. I later earned an MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge and I’m currently a JD-MBA student at Yale University.
Gabe, my cofounder and CTO, has a strong background in startups and communications technology. An alum of Y Combinator and Facebook, Gabe is an expert at developing and testing software products to ensure that our users are able to access free high quality communications with their incarcerated loved ones.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
We launched Ameelio in March of 2020 at the onset of a global pandemic and have hired a global team, based in Turkey, Kenya, Brazil, and across the United States. Being able to assemble a passionate team of innovative and skilled activists has been a tremendous challenge, but also incredibly rewarding. Having never hired anybody before 2020, to having a small international team work so well together, while never once meeting each other in person, or sharing an office, is remarkable.
I’m proud of how Gabe and I recruited and organized our team so that we are highly productive and efficient across time zones, countries, and cultures.
Have you been featured in any documentaries, television shows, or live speaking engagements? If so, please share links to any available content.
Myself and one of our volunteers, Emma Gray, spoke on DeRay Mckesson’s Pod Save The People:
Myself and Gabe have appeared on NPR affiliates to talk about Ameelio and prison communications, for which there are no links.
Over the coming weeks, Freethink will be publishing a documentary about my personal narrative and Ameelio in its series on disruptive entrepreneurs, ‘Challengers’: https://www.freethink.com/show...
We also anticipate that in the coming month we will be announcing our free video services in Iowa and Colorado in a segment on BloombergTV.
If selected as an Elevate Prize winner, how will the funding help you achieve your goals?
As a tech nonprofit supporting two services, and soon, millions of Americans, we need to strengthen our engineering team, the backbone of our direct services model. We’ve kept our operations side lean, at only two members, but we need to grow our seven person engineering and design team to support scaling and development, particularly for Connect, our free video platform.
Elevate funding would be dedicated to helping us scale our team, and scale the impact which we are making with free video services in America’s prisons and jails.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Along with the Colorado Department of Corrections, and Colorado based prison education programs, Ameelio is partnering with the University of Chicago to measure the overall impact of our platform. The team consists of Dr. Panka Bencisk (who specializes in the economics of crime, health, and mental health), Dr. Asha Arora (Research Director in the Crime and Education Labs), and Dr. Nour Abdul-Razzak (whose research focuses on social policies and programs that can reduce violence and improve life outcomes). Our partnership with the Crime Lab is focused on answering three questions: (1) Ameelio’s impact on the well-being and mental health of incarcerated people; as measured through surveys; (2) Ameelio’s impact on infractions within prisons both between incarcerated people and incarcerated people and prison staff; as measured through administrative data; and (3) Ameelio’s long term impact on recidivism, with outcomes assessed in one, two, and three year periods; as measured through administrative data.
We also partner with The Marshall Project to distribute critical information, such as vaccine info, to incarcerated people. https://www.niemanlab.org/2021/03/the-marshall-project-is-experimenting-with-snail-mail-to-reach-incarcerated-people/.
In which of the following areas do you and your organization most need support?