Ameelio wants to make it easier to stay in touch with loved ones in lockup

Ameelio’s web app. Via TechCrunch.
  • Nonprofit tech startup Ameelio makes it easy to send letters and pictures to prisoners, a process that’s normally difficult and expensive.
  • It does this by maintaining a database of that users can use to search to find specific prisoners and the proper way to contact them, which can vary.
  • The startup hopes to eventually branch into video calls.

Prisoner’s debt to society is only partly paid in time. They and their families can dole out eye-popping amounts of money to private prison contractors by purchasing goods like care packages and commissary snacks. Nonprofit tech startup Ameelio aims to defray the cost of another activity that can drain pockets: communicating with the outside world.

Ameelio, lets users send paper letters to loved ones in lockup, helping them skip phone calls, video chats and emails that prisons outsource to contractors like Securus and Global Tel Link. These companies keep records of communications that authorities can later search through. The cost of these services can be expensive, and a chunk of the fee prisoner’s families pay for them is usually funneled back to the prison.

The company’s mobile web app. Via ameelio.org

“One in three families with a loved one in prison are forced into debt by the cost of maintaining contact,” Ameelio claims on its website.

The nonprofit maintains a database of correctional facility addresses and the proper ways of contacting them through its website, making it possible for users to search out and identify the exact person they’re trying to contact and how to do it.

“The way prison addresses work, the inmate address is different from the physical address. So we scraped addresses and built a database for that, and built a way to find the different idiosyncrasies, like how many lines are necessary, what to put on each line, etc.,” co-founder Gabe Saruhashi told TechCrunch.

Users then write their letter, attach a photo if they choose, and hit send. The letter is printed and mailed via Lob, a San Francisco startup that turns emails into letters.

Ameelio was co-founded by Saruhashi and CEO Uzoma Orchingwa, Yale Law students who wanted to make a small change to the private industry of prison services that drains money from inmates and their families. 

 “I was studying mass incarceration, and the policy solutions I was writing about were going to take a long time to happen,” Orchingwa told TechCrunch. “It’s going to be a long battle before we can make even little inroads. So I was thinking, what can I do in the interim while I work on the longer-term project of prison reform?

Amelio runs on donations, claiming that just $8 covers a month of free letters for one family. The company told CNET that if it ever does charge for its services, costs will remain low and users will be able to send a number of free letter each month.

The service said its user base expands by about 100 people a day. The company’s founders hope to eventually use a third party to branch into video calling, another paid service that can be costly for prisoners. 

 The startup is a part of Mozilla’s Spring MVP Lab, an incubator-like program funding startups that do social good, according to TechCrunch.