As of 2018, more than half of all Americans had a family member in jail. Yet the cost of making phone calls while incarcerated has skyrocketed, leaving families to bear the burden of hidden fees to get critical information past prison walls. Even sending mail to a prisoner can be prohibitively expensive. In the midst of urgent concerns in US prisons, a nonprofit technology company is stepping up to help bridge the vast communications gap between those behind bars and their loved ones outside.
Launched just a few weeks ago, Ameelio Letters is an app-based service that allows people to send paper letters and photos to the incarcerated. In the past week, as the coronavirus has roared through US detention centers, the company says it’s delivered over 2,800 letters to inmates in 563 facilities in 47 US states and 15 countries.
“Ameelio was inspired by my desire to provide immediate support to those impacted by incarceration,” Ameelio co-founder Uzoma Orchingwa told CNET. “Our mission is to support meaningful connections between the incarcerated and their families, and relieve the financial burdens created by an exploitative prison telecommunications industry.”
While letters may seem antiquated, “research actually shows that written correspondence is the primary mode of communication between the incarcerated and their families,” Orchingwa said. “Still, snail mail isn’t nearly as convenient as digital alternatives: it takes time and effort to write, stamp, mail and track letters.”
Although not currently available in the App Store or Google Play, Ameelio’s site offers direct download of the mobile-friendly Letters web app. Through a simple registration process, a user can sign up, add an incarcerated person’s information and start writing. The length of Ameelio letters is limited to around 9,000 characters. That’s about 1,500 words, or three pages. Photo attachments can be up to 4 inches by 6 inches.
The company has plans to expand its services beyond Letters, to include a new phone service in partnership with participating detention centers.
“Our long-term vision has always been to approach prison reform through an ecosystem of free tools, but we decided to accelerate the launch of our Letters product in response to COVID-19,” Orchingwa said. “The pandemic exacerbates the financial, emotional, and psychological hardships faced by the families of incarcerated loved ones.”
The coronavirus pandemic has turned crowded prisons into toxic breeding grounds for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In New York City alone, more than 1,000 inmates and staff have tested positive.
Ameelio is free to use, but it’s unclear whether the service will remain that way. The company is optimistic that the costs, if there ever are any, will remain low, and no fewer than four letters per month will be free to send for all users.
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