⚡️ Prison Phones and the Problem with Profits
Can an upstart tech nonprofit take on the $1.4 billion prison communications industry?
In today’s Kernel essay, Lucas Gelfond takes us to Maine Correctional Center as he reports on-the-ground about Ameelio, a tech nonprofit aiming to flip the problem of prison communications incentives on its head. Current contract structures push facilities to choose contractors that charge exorbitant prices to families and incarcerated people. However, through inexpensive open source software and nonprofit structure, Ameelio aims to keep communication totally free for families.
But can a tech nonprofit really challenge the prison-industrial complex in a way that ultimately dismantles it? Or is Ameelio simply a reformist reform? Lucas and I both would love to hear your thoughts — leave a comment on this newsletter or tag Lucas on Twitter at @gucaslelfond.
⚠️ For the sake of email length, this story has been excerpted for this newsletter.
This essay is published in Kernel Magazine’s second issue, which we just released on Monday. We’re releasing one more piece tomorrow. To read all of our released content so far, visit kernelmag.io. For access to all of our essays now, please purchase a copy of the magazine.
📞 Excerpts from “Prison Phones and the Problem with Profits”
Can an upstart tech nonprofit take on the $1.4 billion prison communications industry?
⚠️ Read the full essay at kernelmag.io.
A dispatch from Maine Correctional Center:
The trees thin out on my drive from downtown Portland to Windham, Maine, a small town home to Maine Correctional Center, a 650-person medium and minimum security facility. I’m here as “the press” to write and report about Ameelio, a rapidly growing tech nonprofit hoping to reduce barriers families face trying to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. It’s a few minutes before noon, and I sit in a rented Nissan Sentra in the small parking lot before others arrive
[…] It’s a compelling proposition. Under current pricing schemes imposed by large prison contractors, video visits and phone calls can cost more than $1 per minute, keeping them well out of reach for families that are already disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line. It’s also a devastating missed opportunity; a 2020 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that “the hazard of recidivism [for an incarcerated person] decreased by 3.1 percent for general reconviction” for every additional video visit they received.
Ameelio hopes to eliminate this barrier—by leveraging a wealth of open source projects and software’s ability to scale rapidly at low cost, the nonprofit’s platform is free for the families and incarcerated people who use it. They’re off to a promising start—the platform is midway through a pilot in Colorado and live in all nine of Iowa’s facilities. With this trip, the team will add two more in Maine.
[…] The team’s attention to detail is clear — they walk with a sort of bookish obsessiveness, each employee stopping occasionally to jot something down in a small notebook. I regularly see one or two steal off to ask a resident about a tablet they’re using, to ask an official about administrative protocol, or to look more closely in a rec room or library.
On incentive misalignment:
When startups aim to disrupt stagnant, greedy incumbents, they often, a few years later, find themselves just as inefficient, mediocre, and complacent. Unfathomable, money-burning offers designed to juice adoption numbers (like $10 rideshares across town or $15/month unlimited movie plans) disappear as these companies are forcibly weaned from growth capital. Their ultimate ability to disrupt a social order is tamed by their incentives and status as corporations; the very investment that allows for such “revolutionary products” often demands returns that force companies to prioritize shareholder value over all else.
A for-profit startup would almost certainly have this fate; for the prison communication industry, it is the incentives themselves that cause the incumbents to build products so poorly.
[…] It is this exact arrangement Zo wants to avoid: “We fear becoming a prison contractor, and the goal is to not exist in 15 years,” he tells me. Unlike for-profit companies which benefit from an increasingly large prison system, Ameelio can define its success in terms of providing service — right now, communication and education — that greatly decrease an incarcerated person’s chance of reoffending and, in turn, reduce prison populations. “[We want to] shrink the prison system over time enough to become irrelevant… Every nonprofit should ask ‘how can we not exist as quickly as possible?’”
In Y Combinator founder Paul Graham’s essay “Organic Startup Ideas,” he writes:
So if you want to come up with organic startup ideas, I'd encourage you to focus more on the idea part and less on the startup part. Just fix things that seem broken, regardless of whether it seems like the problem is important enough to build a company on. If you keep pursuing such threads it would be hard not to end up making something of value to a lot of people, and when you do, surprise, you've got a company.
Graham fails to consider a complication — what if the problem exists because some other people tried to solve it by starting companies?
On the challenges of building tech beyond profits:
Ameelio’s current focus is on achieving financial stability and scaling the organization’s reach. While their size means costs are far lower than those of their competitors — they previously considered removing the “Team” section of their website after a department of corrections feared they were too small to provide adequate service — they still remain reliant on donor funding. Zo spends much of his time fundraising and, as such, the organization is constrained in what it can do based on what it can successfully raise money for.
[…] Lacking the signals most startups have to evaluate their success (like revenue), the Ameelio team established a multi-year partnership with the University of Chicago’s Crime Labs to study the platform’s impact. They track a variety of outcomes — one- to three-year recidivism rates, mental health conditions, and behavioral infractions, among others — across similar facilities, comparing those which have Ameelio’s technology and those which don’t.
[…] Elizabeth Gray, Ameelio’s second hire who works as a product designer and researcher, has experimented with different compensation amounts for research calls, scheduling reminders for upcoming calls, and learning how families tend to fit these calls into their schedule in order to better learn their needs. While Elizabeth emphasizes Ameelio’s ability to function like a tech company, they’ve had to adapt many tech industry norms to new constraints. For example, the team stopped working on a sprint-like engineering schedule because many of their features are based more on the timing of contracts with corrections officials rather than clean two-week blocks.
Elizabeth also notes she’s had to work around huge constraints in reaching incarcerated individuals, in order to design the product with them. Up until her visit to Maine, most of her own knowledge about incarcerated people came from a combination of coworkers, loved ones she could talk to on the outside, and online discussions. “[That’s] better than nothing, but as someone who really cares about talking to the people that are impacted, it always felt not satisfactory to me and that’s something that I’m even still trying to think about how to do better.”
Ameelio’s current approaches include talking with formerly incarcerated people who were recently released. They’ve added a monthly check-in with a resident we met at Maine State Prison to show early iterations of new products, and to do usability testing in hopes of gaining more granular insight into how well the system works.
The Ameelio team attempts to use these check-ins to ensure the product they are building remains centered on the needs of the incarcerated people they serve, but they are still constrained by the prison’s restrictions.
On skepticism, and viewing technology as a tool:
I was drawn to Ameelio for its application of tech toward more useful aims than those of the typical ad targeting or B2B SaaS tools. I was intrigued by the way that it defined metrics beyond financial returns — the sheer scale and quantity of calls, the potential reduction in recidivism. What I had ignored was the emotional, non-instrumental benefit of the tools, the essential service of offering social support to incarcerated people who need it just as much as anyone else does.
[…] What makes Ameelio interesting, then, is not its technology, but rather its implicit view of incarceration as a product of circumstance that often results from material need or an absence of social support networks. The team’s educational and communications products earnestly seek to provide opportunities and support that could facilitate re-entry, rather than simply punishing people for their past offenses. The technology itself is fairly standard; one can easily find YouTube videos explaining how to build a video chat or messaging platform, or to create a dashboard capable of permissioning access. Gabe confirmed this in a 2021 interview with TechCrunch. “We leverage a lot of open source tech, which is why part of our costs are so low,” he said. “They use Twilio, we use mediasoup; the only thing we’re paying for is servers. And we use Kubernetes, so our total cost right now is like $100 a month.”
This, however, is far from a dig at Ameelio’s technology. Previous attempts by companies applying technology to prison communications have made things decisively worse — take, for example, Securus requiring the end of in-person visits when installing its video visit kiosks. Ameelio distinguishes itself in the way the team frames technology as a tool — one, in this case, that has been thoughtfully applied to advance crucial advocacy work, built on a nonprofit structure that doesn’t (by nature) pit Ameelio’s incentives against those of its users.
I came into this piece with some suspicion of Ameelio, too, a sense that, if I kept looking, I’d find some sort of “gotcha” that proved it to be garden variety techno-solutionism, a prison contracting grift that had been elaborately social-justice washed. Wasn’t there a necessary tension between “liberatory” and “funded by tech billionaires,” and wouldn’t I find a red herring (probably after locking myself in a room and reading a lot more theory) that proved this was too “reformist” of a reform and worked against “real” grassroots advocacy work? It’s certainly true that Ameelio has to make tradeoffs — in platform design, in funding — to exist, but it’s quite difficult for me to imagine that it isn’t ultimately an overwhelming net positive, both for incarcerated people and in reducing recidivism, a step toward broader decarceration (or, at least, shrinking prison populations). To even ask these questions is a paradigm shift. At the very least, I can’t help but think — wouldn’t we be way, way better off if more ambitious young computer science graduates looked to Ameelio as an example over, say, Palantir? Are there other advocacy efforts that might be well served by familiarity with and clever application of the MERN stack?
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✍️ Community Responses
Read three Reboot community members’ thoughts on Lucas’ essay.
From Hal Triedman:
Does liberatory technology exist? Can information technology be abolitionist within a structurally unjust system? Is a non-exploitative communications infrastructure a non-reformist reform that undermines relations of domination, or does it reify the prison industrial complex?
Does the prison communications industry need a Silicon Valley-style disruption, or should ethical technologists seek to take it apart in its entirety?
These knotty questions bounce around my head as I think about this profile of Ameelio. I’m used to looking out for buzzword-filled press releases from start-ups and nonprofits, trumpeting how their work heralds the imminent transformation of society. Broadly speaking, these organizations either:
end up doing very little to transform the existing state of affairs they struggle against, in which case they seek justification for their own existence (and funding) in the continuing hegemony of the status quo; or
they do upend society, in which case their reason for existing is self-evidently true, because they have become the new hegemony.
In either case, it is difficult to rationalize the natural withering away of an organization that seeks to transform society — only its failure.
Ameelio’s leadership is self-aware of the twin traps of start-up culture and the nonprofit industrial complex, and seems to be oriented towards a more abolitionist approach. “We fear becoming a prison contractor, and the goal is to not exist in 15 years,” Zo Orchingwa says in the piece. “Every nonprofit should ask ‘how can we not exist as quickly as possible?’” These fears and underlying questions are laudable, and the service they provide is indisputably better and more ethical than those of for-profit prison communications companies.
But at the same time my suspicion forces me to apply the two hypothetical scenarios I outlined above to the case of Ameelio, 15 years in the future:
What if for-profit communications companies (or needlessly cruel governmental entities) successfully stop Ameelio from deploying their technology widely? In this case, the exploitative system they’re fighting against continues to justify Ameelio’s existence and funding stream. Simply put, it’s a better alternative to Securus, Global Tel Link, and CenturyLink that reduces recidivism and doesn’t financially strain the families of incarcerated people.
What if Ameelio is incredibly successful and is deployed everywhere? Although it would certainly improve the lives of incarcerated people and decrease recidivism, I’m skeptical that the changes that Ameelio might lead to would reduce prison populations enough that the infrastructure itself becomes obsolete. The prison industrial complex in the United States, entwined as it is with widespread racial segregation, surveillance and overpolicing of non-white neighborhoods, corporate interests, and other societal inequities, is not something that can be optimized to zero. The continued operation of Ameelio’s communications infrastructure would become critical to millions of incarcerated people and their families.
These potential futures don’t detract from the fact that right now Ameelio is likely a “net positive, both for incarcerated people and in reducing recidivism, a step toward broader decarceration (or, at least, shrinking prison populations).” And it is likely true that the world would “be way, way better off if more ambitious young computer science graduates looked to Ameelio as an example over, say, Palantir.”
But either way, as long as the organization can continue to secure funding, Ameelio will likely continue to struggle against the exploitative status quo or be in charge of a piece of critical public infrastructure, connecting millions of incarcerated people with their social support networks outside of prison. This is the fundamental tension of organizations that struggle to bring a modicum of justice from within unjust relations of domination.
Which leads me to the final set of questions this piece raises for me: What would our world look like if we obviated prisons, rather than optimizing the prisoner experience? Is that a vision that would ever be funded by tech billionaires?
From Kevin Zheng:
Instead of hoping for solutions to emerge from industry incumbents (which may never materialize), Ameelio offers an alternative path for carceral technology and startups more generally: towards non-existence. Ameelio offers an inspiring vision for how technology can support social change. Depending on the situation, a startup’s end-goal may not be infinite growth and continued profitability. When these standard logics are applied to a prison communications context, companies like Securus and Global Tel Link have shown that profits always come before both social and technological progress.
Beyond the prison walls we can see other products and services that mirror the prison communication industry. For example, rideshare services initially undercut taxi services and public transit. Over time, rideshares became the only way to get around in some areas, and governments shifted investment away from maintaining their transit systems to creating rideshare pickup zones and adapting car infrastructure to rideshares, despite rideshares having negative impacts on road congestion and carbon emissions. Prison phones also allow each interaction made by an incarcerated person with the outside world to be monetized. With no other mobility options, rideshares would be the only way to get around, effectively enabling rideshare companies to monetize our every move.
From Zeb Becker:
Ameelio’s beginnings as a letter posting service provide an excellent illustration of their larger strategy. They started with one of the oldest, most fundamental communications technologies we have — writing letters and delivering them through the Postal Service. On a technical level, their main intervention is incredibly simple. They leverage the mail system, a boring, reliable, old technology that simply works. One of the main benefits of the ‘Letters’ project is not technological at all, but the simple fact that Ameelio provides two free letters to each user every month. By deeply understanding the barriers that friends and family face in communicating with incarcerated individuals, Ameelio is able to ease the process without relying on any particularly novel technology.
Most of Lucas’s article focuses on the challenges that Ameelio faces in entering into competition with the established for-profit behemoths, navigating the legal and political challenges of interacting with a patchwork of prison bureaucracies, and researching the communications needs of incarcerated individuals. Negotiating with policy makers and institutional stakeholders is their core work. Technology is not given primacy — it does what they need it to do, and nothing more.
Concrete wins for social change are often accomplished with simple, proven tools like basic websites, scanned PDFs of books and zines, or shared Google Docs and spreadsheets. New technologies are exciting and sometimes important. However, few problems can be addressed through technology alone — attempts to do so generally lead us to ineffective “technosolutionism.” Ameelio reminds us that effective change often does not rely solely on novel technologies, but rather hinges on boring, proven, reliable systems, packaged with a deep understanding of the social context they need to be used in. We do not need solutions that are technologically innovative — we need solutions that work.
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Tomorrow, we’ll be in back in your inbox with our very last Kernel preview piece, an incredibly moving fictional short story by Adora Svitak that interrogates relationships in the age of technology.
Towards liberatory technology,
Emily & the Reboot team