Ameelio's free video call service for residents goes live at first facilities - TechCrunch

Ameelios free video call service for residents goes live at

Ameelio, a nonprofit startup that plans to pay for free video service with inmates in prisons, is making progress against the companies that have been influencing the area for decades. With nine facilities in Iowa up and running with dozens more ahead of the planned 2022 launch, the company may soon introduce a fundamental change soon. how people with prisons have access to communication and education.

Founded less than two years ago, Ameelio had views of the call system from the beginning, but started by offering a web and mobile service for sending letters to prisoners, which is usually a process surprisingly difficult.

“We probably had 8,000 users when we spoke to you, and a few months later we launched our mobile app. We now host something like 300,000 users, in all states and some regions, ”said Uzoma Orchingwa, founder and CEO of the company. But while letter writing is a useful service, the team 's efforts have focused on developing and testing the range of digital products it hopes to offer across the country. starting next year.

By building their own technical stacks and moving the costs (much lower than the market) away from prisoners, Ameelio offers an attractive alternative to the completely outdated systems. fashionable in most prisons today.

Perhaps many are unaware that a handful of for-profit companies are performing almost all of the for-profit video call services used by the country's often for-profit prisons, which accumulate a thin portion of the revenue. seo. Securus and Global Tel have been providing call services for a long time, and their business practices were described by former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as "the clearest, most obvious type of market failure I have ever seen as a regulator."

Despite costing almost nothing to deliver, calls can cost prisoners as much as a dollar per minute - a staggering 10 years ago but positively criminal today, when video calling free is a basic feature that we all expect for free or a nominal cost. The infamous Securus is in the midst of rebranding (to “Aventis”) and possibly a SPAC contract to reinvent itself and clean up the past, following the example of Facebook and Blackwater . But the zebra can't change its stripes, and that's all.

Not only that, but customers - that is, the Correctional Departments that contract with these businesses - are beginning to question the value of the services being provided. passed. The pandemic resulted in canceled visits and temporary replacements with free video calls, and CTO Ameelio Gabriel Saruhashi said many would prefer to keep DOC as such. The old, and very rude, way of taking prisoners and distributing their income is becoming increasingly unbelievable nowadays, and they are more interested in becoming keeping things simple.

Screenshot of Ameelio video call recorder interface.

Orchingwa explained that they have structured Ameelio as a turnkey system for whatever level of participation a facility or department chooses. The narrow RFP system for selecting state-paid service providers may be a barrier to adoption at scale, but Ameelio can be used as a base for free video calling platforms like Google Meet; in fact, the Louisville Metro DOC has been transformed into free communication with Ameelio without the need for legislation, an important precedent for exploration. Later, if it so wishes, the company may also provide the necessary and regulated registration, storage and security services for a fee.

This would come in far, far below values ​​from existing providers. That's because the whole problem has shifted from a telecommunications problem to a technical problem, and "They're not technical companies," Orchingwa said. "Their results have not changed in two decades."

Instead, they buy companies to bolt on their existing services or pay for off - the - shelf tech like Twilio. So to pay for the service in the first place, then give the state a cut, and still come out ahead, they have to put a cost on the market. And because the market is made up of largely inseparable individuals and their families - not just the lobbying type - complaints can be written off more or less completely. The result is poor service at the highest price.

"We do not have that pressure," Orchingwa said. “We are a start-up, and we do everything in-house. ”

“We get a lot of open source technology, which is part of why our costs are so low,” Saruhashi said. “They use Twilio, we use mediasoup; it's the same thing we pay for servers. And we use Kubernetes, so our total cost is currently $ 100 per month. ”

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They have also made their own hardware, standard Android tablets with custom patches that are easy to provide and use anywhere with Wi-Fi. Facilities looking to replace landlines are capable of decommissioning a dozen phones and carrying five dozen tablets, making it possible to make both video and audio calls. Video calls need to be recorded and recorded (by Ameelio or another), but audio can be done at any time, and with one service and one device does both tidying things up.

Screenshot of Ameelio prototype education interface.

Screenshot of Ameelio prototype education interface.

The last area is where Ameelio hopes to move things forward in education. There is currently a real hodgepodge of education systems available to prisoners. Sometimes security requirements mean that paper or homework resources have to be physically handled and collected by the school representative (something we spoke to at TC Sessions: Justice this summer). In some places service is meaningful, but only accessible at certain times, or with limited topics. As exciting as a course in English Literature can be, not all residents are interested in completing their BA, they may prefer to learn a trade.

The only tablets that provide audio and video calls - and of course other services such as telehealth, official communications, text - based messaging and so on - would serve as a platform for education or just reading. Orchingwa said there is a lot of interest from all sides of the market (educators and DOCs, not to mention the prisoners themselves, who have been fighting for this for decades), but that digitization has been a process slow.

"Grants are available, but there is no education platform," he said. “The news is that Ameelio is doing it, at two facilities and we signed up for our first county. LinkedIn Learning, MasterClass, PBS, we upload thousands of books from Gutenberg. We are also trying to do job training; we identified CDL [commercial drivers license] training as an interest, and we have been running that externally with about 50 students who previously had computer literacy problems, using the app for study. ”

It's still very much on the horizon, but he notes that in the short time since its founding Ameelio has removed a number of resources from business owners that started in the '80s. This is a mature industry for change and there are plenty of enthusiasts willing to try something new, even if it's a bit of a mockery of the boat.

Although Ameelio intends to fund itself by operating as a provider for commercial services states that already pay for (recording and storing video calls) and by charging customers for secure, private calls instead of prisoners or families, will be free for users. “Ameelio will always be there for nonprofits. We are committed to freeing families from contacting their loved ones and will always maintain our services against people who are justified in being non-profit making. We do not believe that it is possible to make a model for profit that relies on justified people, ”said Orchingwa.

It helps to have a number of deep friends. Orchingwa mentioned Jack Dorsey, Vinod Khosla, Eric Schmidt, Brian Acton, Sarah and Rich Barton, Devin and Cindy Wenig, Kevin Ryan and Draper Richards Kaplan as the current supporters of Ameelio, and that True Ventures has donated to him as well. The company is working on a planned $ 25 million mission to get them through the next few years as they establish their own revenue streams.

The idea seems to be that an incarcerated person could - and should - have a device that allows them to communicate securely and even seamlessly with their loved ones and legal representation, as well as access to educational facilities and services other, very self-evident. But the market, and the lobbying and the industry that explains it, have been going this route for a long time. Ameelio is just building momentum but in a few years it could become a free platform provider (as in beer, as in speech, maybe even as in FOSS) that will give it to the world. this is a mistreated population.

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