Why Can't Prisoners Call Home for Free?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because inmates are fleeced for millions of dollars per year.
By Seth Smalley
- Two companies control 70 percent of the American prison communications market, leading to high prices for inmates to make calls, as states and localities share in the revenue.
- A new nonprofit, Ameelio, aims to bring free voice and video calls to the incarcerated.
When Ugochi Orchingwa was forced to flee her village as a child during the Nigerian-Biafran War, caring for multiple siblings and witnessing unthinkable atrocities along the way, she acquired a resolute life philosophy that she would later impart to her son, Uzoma: The world is convoluted, often difficult and sometimes terrible, but despite its complexities, we are morally compelled to strive for good in the face of adversity.
Uzoma Orchingwa took the lesson to heart. A graduate of Cambridge and a grad student at Yale, he is co-founder of Ameelio, a nonprofit taking on profiteering prison telecommunication corporations and the outsized financial burden they place on inmates and their families with a simple fix: instead of price gouging human essentials, make them free. Now, Ameelio has signed a deal for a pilot program with a county jail in the Northeast — though Orchingwa won’t reveal its name publicly, to avoid pushback from incumbent companies — to offer the first free videoconferencing platform to inmates in the U.S.
“It’s free for us to hop onto Messenger or WhatsApp. Why should it cost so much for the most vulnerable in our population to do the same?” Orchingwa asks. “Couldn’t we just build an alternative?”
The fact that 1 in 3 loved ones [of incarcerated people] goes into debt just financing phone calls and visits is way too high.
And the cost is high , in part because two corporations — Securus and Global Tel Link — control more than 70 percent of American prison telecommunications , and in part because their active user base is literally a captive market. After one of these companies contracts with a prison, they have exclusive market access, and free rein to set prices. Though rates at state prisons have fallen in recent years, thanks to increasing pressure from activists and the Federal Communications Commission, a 15-minute call from a local jail still costs an average of $5.74, according to a report last year from the Prison Policy Initiative. While study after study correlates increased familial communication with reduced recidivism rates, many inmates are left with the hard choice of paying thousands each year, or simply going without contact.
Born in Chicago, Orchingwa, 29, spent his early childhood in the city of Aba, Nigeria. It was a city rife with inequity and crime. Even as a child, he was well aware of these realities. But in spite of its afflictions, Orchingwa maintains that Aba was filled with joy and rich in culture — and he hopes to extend his work to Nigeria one day.
He wrote his undergraduate thesis on existentialism while he studied Beauvoirian ethics: What could it mean to be “free” within the context of incarceration? But his interests soon shifted from a theoretical moral lens to a more pragmatic one.
“The fact that 1 in 3 loved ones [of incarcerated people] goes into debt just financing phone calls and visits is way too high,” he says. This stat is one of countless in Orchingwa’s mental inventory, assembled from his years of penal policy research in university and law firms. Like how Securus pays the state of Connecticut 60 percent of its revenue in commissions; in 11 states these so-called kickback schemes are illegal; in 39 they are not.
But telecommunication companies, certain sheriff’s departments and local officials argue the revenue from these companies is necessary to fund everything from guards to parole officers to criminal justice databases.
In Connecticut, where it costs $4.87 for a 15-minute collect call from state prison, a bill seeking to make inmate communication free has been blocked so far. The reason? The calls generate about $7 million annually for the state.
“Platinum Equity, the private equity [firm] that backs Securus, put out about $40,000 to lobby against the bill,” Connecticut state representative Josh Elliott, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, tells me. “And as a contractor that works with the state, that does not happen very often.”
When asked whether he sees a nonprofit as a feasible alternative, Elliott replies with a mixture of caution and hope. Any technological edge the incumbent companies once had, Elliott says, has waned. But given the work it would take to change providers to an unproven nonprofit, “that sort of will doesn’t really exist yet.”
Ameelio plans to target states and localities that are already leading the way in prison reform, and then “refine the tool and scale up from there,” Orchingwa says. San Francisco and New York City, for instance, have already made jail phone calls free, though they nevertheless pay Securus and Global Tel Link to provide videoconferencing to inmates and their families (at a reduced rate). Ameelio offers many of the same security features requisite for any inmate communication platform, including providing transcripts of the conversations.
Backed by Mozilla, Robin Hood and nearly $50,000 from a Kickstarter drive, Ameelio is building momentum. As they try to break into calls and videoconferencing behind bars, they’re beginning with Letters, an app dedicated to sending physical messages between the incarcerated and their loved ones at any jail or prison in the U.S. at no charge. They’ve sent 30,000 so far.
“We had one user that told us she used to have to choose between paying for stamps or paying for her husband’s heart medication,” says Emma Gray, head of outreach for Ameelio. Meanwhile, if you were to send even a brief message back and forth with an incarcerated loved one using JPay, an aptly named Securus subsidiary e-messaging service, it could cost around $1.
In the post-George Floyd world, Orchingwa tells me, there’s new funder and volunteer interest in his platform. He points to how stock prices for private prisons recently have taken a $1 billion hit, given the rising tide of reform. It’s only a matter of time, Orchingwa figures, before the phone companies face the music.
OZY’s Five Questions With Uzoma Orchingwa
- What’s the last book you finished? The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovitz.
- What do you worry about? COVID-19’s worsening of already dismal labor market opportunities for formerly incarcerated folk.
- What’s your one must-have tool? A bookmark.
- Who’s your hero? My mother; I have never met a more courageous and selfless person.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Triathlon.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Orchingwa had already graduated from Yale, and that he studied Bavarian ethics as an undergraduate. He is still in graduate school, and it was Beauvoirian ethics.
- Seth Smalley, OZY Author Contact Seth Smalley