Telecommunications

He’s taking on the for-profit prison telecommunications industry – OZY

Gabriel Saruhashi believes inmates being able to communicate with loved ones is a right, not a privilege.

I sit down to talk with 2021 OZY Genius Award winner Gabriel Saruhashi on Zoom on a rainy Friday. I connect from my apartment in New Hampshire and Saruhashi from his home in São Paulo and we are connected in seconds, despite the 5,000 miles between us. It’s easy to take 21st century technology for granted when a call like this is effortless and costs next to nothing.

Yet millions of incarcerated Americans and their families pay an exorbitant amount just to stay in touch with each other. The $1.2 billion for-profit prison telecommunications industry charges up to $25 for a 15-minute phone call between an inmate and a loved one on the outside. Not being able to have these conversations disrupts inmates’ support systems, jeopardizes their mental and physical health and increases the risk of re-offending, while adding to the burden on already struggling families – 1 in 3 go into debt maintaining contact with a family member behind bars. Over the past year, with the pandemic impacting in-person visits to facilities, many have had no choice but to pay the price for the industry’s costly system.

In response, Saruhashi, a Yale University senior, teamed up with Yale Law School student Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa, who studied criminology at Cambridge University (several of his friends had been incarcerated when he was a teenager), and created an app called Ameelio. The name refers to “improve”, which means to improve something. “We are the little Davids against the big Goliaths,” says Saruhashi.

Ameelio is a company that combines Silicon Valley with social justice. The app allows families to send branded letters, photos or postcards to their incarcerated loved ones for free via their smartphone or computer. Since its launch in 2020, users have sent more than 700,000 letters and postcards through the app, which also offers games, online articles, sudoku and self-help materials.

The duo quickly caught the eye of big tech figures, who were among the startup’s biggest donors and investors. Entrepreneur Bart Decrem provided Ameelio with $12,500 through Mozilla’s Fix-the-Internet incubator, a donation Saruhashi calls “truly catalytic.” Taken by “the magic of the chemistry between Gabe and Uzoma”, Decrem says he “fell in love with the project straight away because it was so specific”. Ameelio’s first investor has since served as a mentor to the team, which has grown to 14.

Operating on a small budget, Ameelio relied primarily on word of mouth to spread its message. When an inmate receives a postcard (printed and sent for free through a third-party service), “it’s the highlight of their day,” Saruhashi says. “They share the news with their bunkies, their bunkies call their families and tell them to download the app. It’s a very viral loop because once you hit critical mass in the facility, it explodes.”

And after? Ameelio compatible video chats. Access to video visits has been shown to reduce recidivism, facilitate reintegration into the community, and strengthen parent-child relationships. This new functionality will also open the doors of communication for outlets such as telehealth, vocational training, rehabilitation programs and education.

Growing up in São Paulo, Saruhashi understood the importance of affordable communication in educating people who don’t have access to conventional resources after starting the nonprofit Letters for Learning, an education program. exchange of letters between students in India, Brazil, Ghana and the United States, in 2015. “We had no money to buy books for the students”, explains Saruhashi, who is quadrilingual, “but I thought the best thing I could do to help them learn was to give them the chance to connect with other English learners around the world.”

With Ameelio’s video chat feature serving as a catalyst for inmates to access education, as well as the December 2020 Congressional Stimulus Package that restores financial aid eligibility to over 400,000 incarcerated people , prison education programs are vying to enter the space, says Saruhashi. And there are benefits beyond classes and lectures: “All of these additions like tutoring and office hours can happen via video calls, so [inmates] may have a higher [college] completion rate.

“Don’t people deserve to stay in touch with their loved ones? Decrem asks. It’s a question with an obvious answer, one that Saruhashi brings to light while striving to decouple prisons from profit.

A big order? Absoutely. But remember what happened to Goliath.