The first time Uzoma Orchingwa wrote a letter to a prison, he was in college, trying to reach an incarcerated childhood friend. The letter never arrived.
Communicating with inmates in America is notoriously difficult—physical addresses are different from mailing addresses, phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and visiting a state facility requires a 100-mile trek, on average.
Orchingwa has successfully sent many letters since, and while writing his masters dissertation on criminology at Cambridge, he waded deep into research on prison reform—and concluded reforms alone won’t quickly solve the system’s many problems. Now he’s at Yale Law School building Ameelio, a digital platform that has already printed and shipped 22,000 letters to inmates and is preparing to launch a free video call system for jails and prisons. The Kickstarter campaign will help make it happen.
Ameelio is taking on a $1.2 billion communication service industry—mostly a duopoly between Securus and Global Tel Link. In all but 11 states, it’s legal for these companies to charge inmates punishingly high rates for phone calls, pocket margins of 50 per cent or more, and pay jails and prisons millions of dollars in kickbacks. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”
America’s most vulnerable populations are paying for it. Families report spending up to $500 a month to stay connected, and one in three of these families is forced into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who are not able to talk or visit regularly are much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration, and isolated inmates face increased challenges readjusting upon their release.
There has been new scrutiny on the issue in recent years, but with uneven progress. A phone call in a city-run Illinois jail, for example, costs 52 times more than a call from a state-run Illinois prison. “We don’t have one justice system,” Orchingwa explains, “we have 51 separate systems. Then underneath that we have counties that have their own stakeholders and incentives.” He hopes that his free communication platform will stop the cycle of overwhelmed administrators letting exploitative businesses into their facilities. “Basically our theory of change is establishing ourselves as a free alternative to the for-profit companies.”
To take on big businesses—and big technical requirements—Orchingwa started with a more straightforward product: a web and mobile app that lets users type letters and upload photos. Ameelio then prints, adds postage, and mails them at no cost. (The bootstrapped non-profit has gathered grants from Robin Hood, Mozilla Builders, and Fast Forward to cover expenses.)
“It made sense to start with letters because there’s very little barrier to entry and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated communicate through letters,” Orchingwa says. “We could bring it online, digitise it, and boost contact.”
As the team rolled out the initial app, interest spread quickly. Close to 50 per cent of Ameelio’s users come directly from referrals of people who are incarcerated—they’ll see letters others are receiving and call home to tell their community about the platform.
Criminal justice organisations soon learned about Ameelio as well. “We were building out this nationwide database because we want to make it easier for our users to find their loved ones and communicate with them. It hadn’t occurred to us that reentry organisations didn’t actually have much visibility either,” Orchingwa says. Even preeminent institutions like PEN America and Harvard’s legal clinics had very limited data and cumbersome mailing processes. The Ameelio team added new product features aimed at these types of users doing outreach and re-entry work.
Now, the fast-growing team is nearing their ultimate goal: a service for free video calls. Inmates will sign on with tablets that are either fixed in a supervised phone bank or available for checkout during visiting hours. The software will allow for scheduling, identity verification, and screenshots or video playback for security compliance. Orchingwa is finalising a pilot program with a mid-sized county jail and looking forward to future iterations that could add education programs and telehealth to the tablets and generate data supporting prison reform.
“We’re going to be able to provide metrics and be able to work with legislators to say, ‘Look, in Connecticut, we find that incarcerated people who have weekly access to their loved one fare much better.’ We should think a little more creatively about recidivism and sentencing,” Orchingwa says. “And we hope to be a technology service that can also do advocacy and accelerate legislative change.”
For a few years now, many have described the generation Z as sensitive, lazy and addicted to social media. While some of it is most definitely true, we’ve recently started seeing gen Z as the one that will change things. Now, as the Black Lives Matter movement carries on protesting in the US as well as in the rest of the world, we wonder if gen Z could actually be the generation that tackles systemic racism.
To answer this, we asked the gen Z live platform Yubo to share a few of our questions with its users. The poll was conducted between 9 June and 15 June and had Yubo survey over 13,000 people aged 13 to 25 years old in the UK. This allowed Screen Shot to get gen Zers’ opinion on the movement of protest that followed George Floyd’s murder in the US.
From the poll’s results, 7 statistics stood out as clear signs that gen Z could well be the generation of change.
In order to achieve any kind of change, we need to accept that there is something wrong in the first place. That’s why we asked Yubo’s gen Zers residing in the UK whether they felt like black people were treated differently than white people. In other words, we wanted to see if they could admit the existence of white privilege.
In response, 4 out of 5 gen Zers said they believe that black people are treated differently, compared to only 2 out of 3 of their parents sharing the same belief. For many, denying white privilege comes from misunderstanding the concept.
Not fully grasping how society privileges white individuals has led many to believe that black people who have suffered from police brutality somehow deserved the blame. In comparison, the new generation has been helped by social media and the internet in understanding where white privilege comes from and how exactly it benefits certain people.
While certain news outlets have made it their mission to depict the many protests that followed George Floyd’s murder as violent, many protesters have testified against these statements. We’ve discovered that, in the UK, 4 out of 5 gen Zers believe that peaceful protests are necessary to facilitate change, confirming that most new gens intend to protest peacefully and not violently. Half of their parents hold the same belief.
With the current movement still going strong, we’ve seen the protesters’ resilience and willingness to sacrifice their time and energy in a cause that is more than worth it. Despite the risk of getting arrested by the police, new gens have admitted they would be prepared to take that risk in order to make their voice heard.
While previous generations have been quick to point the finger at the US, as we’ve seen Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis do last week in an interview with George the Poet, gen Z is also calling out the UK and other countries as being responsible for systemic racism, too. Ignoring the UK’s denial of its own racism is as disingenuous as ignoring the US’ police brutality and racism, and doing so only further perpetuates white privilege in the UK.
These statistics portray gen Zers as strong protesters who are aware of systemic issues as well as willing to take action. But admitting and fighting these don’t come without its toll on new gen’s mental and physical wellbeing.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight against racism and injustice couldn’t wait. While staying home as much as possible is still strongly recommended by governments, protesters have had to make do with their best tool in order to make their voices heard: protesting.
Just yesterday, police officers in London urged Priti Patel to impose an emergency ban on all protests during the coronavirus pandemic, warning officers were being put at risk by a wave of mass demonstrations. Although wearing masks, gloves, and keeping a two meters distance from other protesters are the best ways to avoid risk of getting COVID-19, many protesters are still concerned about their health. The situation, however, has not discouraged the Black Lives Matter movement from fighting back.
Protesting has never been easy. But now, more than ever, with the constant flow of graphic and harmful content our brains receive through social media platforms, we find ourselves on edge frequently. This has had an impact on gen Z’s mental health. As an activist, looking after your mental health is a necessary step in the fight against systemic racism.
This statistic highlights how much more effort we need to make as a generation. Protests must carry on, yes, but we also need to provide more information to anyone that might feel the need to research how to take action. Only by doing so will we start tackling systemic racism.
These protests are made of passionate, non-violent young leaders fighting for a brighter future. Those who previously criticised the new generation for being too connected, too woke or even too sensitive will be compelled to reconsider their stance soon enough.