He's Taking on the For-Profit Prison Telecommunications Industry
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Gabriel Saruhashi believes that inmates being able to communicate with loved ones is a right, not a privilege.
By Liam Jamieson
I sit down to talk with 2021 OZY Genius Award winner Gabriel Saruhashi over Zoom on a rainy Friday. I join 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 that separate 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 to simply stay in touch with one another. The $1.2 billion for-profit prison telecommunications industry charges as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone call between an inmate and a loved one on the outside. Not being able to have those conversations disrupts inmates’ support systems, compromises their mental and physical health and increases the likelihood of recidivism, while adding to the burdens borne by already-struggling families — 1 in 3 fall into debt maintaining contact with a family member behind bars. This past year, with the pandemic impacting in-person visits in facilities, many have had no choice but to pay the price for the industry’s expensive system.
In response, Saruhashi, a senior at Yale University, teamed up with Yale Law School student Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa, who studied criminology at the University of Cambridge (several of his friends had been incarcerated when he was a teenager), and created an app called Ameelio. The name is a reference to “ameliorate,” which means to make something better. “We are the small Davids against the big Goliaths,” Saruhashi says.
Ameelio is a Silicon Valley-meets-social justice undertaking. The app allows families to send letters, photos or branded postcards to incarcerated loved ones free of charge via their smartphone or computer. Since its launch in 2020, users have mailed over 700,000 letters and postcards through the app, which also offers games, online articles, sudoku and self-help material.
The duo quickly grabbed the attention of prominent figures in Big Tech, who have been 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 in the chemistry between Gabe and Uzoma,” Decrem says he “sorta fell in love with the project right 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 has relied predominantly on word of mouth to spread their message. When an inmate receives a postcard (printed and mailed for free through a third-party service), “it’s the highlight of their day,” says Saruhashi. “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 we reach a critical mass in the facility, it just explodes.”
What’s next? Ameelio-enabled video chats. Access to video visitations has been shown to decrease recidivism, facilitate reentry to the community and bolster parent-child relationships. This new feature will also open the doors of communication for outlets like telehealth, job training, reentry programs and education.
Growing up in São Paulo, Saruhashi saw the importance of affordable communication in educating people who lack access to conventional resources after launching the nonprofit Letters for Learning, a letter-exchange program among students in India, Brazil, Ghana and the U.S., in 2015. “We had no money to buy books for the students,” explains Saruhashi, who is quadrilingual, “but I figured the best thing I could do to help them learn was to give them the chance to communicate with other English learners across the globe.”
With Ameelio’s video chat feature serving as a catalyst for inmates to access education, along with Congress’ December 2020 stimulus package that restores financial aid eligibility to over 400,000 incarcerated people, prison education programs are vying to get into the space, Saruhashi explains. And there are benefits beyond coursework and lectures: “All these add-ons like tutoring and office hours can happen over video calls so [inmates] can have a higher [college] completion rate.”
“Don’t people deserve to stay in touch with their loved ones?” asks Decrem. It’s a question with an obvious answer, one that Saruhashi is bringing to light while working to uncouple prisons from profit.
A tall order? Absolutely. But remember what happened to Goliath.
- Liam Jamieson, OZY Author Contact Liam Jamieson