As Uzoma Orchingwa began studying at Yale Law School in 2017, he kept thinking about the civic dysfunction he witnessed as a child in Nigeria. He also thought about friends he met after his family moved to West Hartford, Connecticut, who ended up being incarcerated as teenagers.
It occurred to him that law alone couldn’t solve problems with mass incarceration and that technology might help bridge the gap.
“There are a lot of predatory companies within the prison space that are making lives very difficult for families when it comes to phone calls or access to quality education,” says Orchingwa, 31, a 2022 graduate of Yale’s joint MBA/JD program. “My idea was to challenge those companies and build an alternative solution that could provide families with completely free communication but also enable them to connect with critical resources they lacked prior to incarceration.”
Orchingwa needed a technical co-founder, and after discovering a group of Yale students who were building technologies for nonprofits, he emailed Gabriel Saruhashi. The Brazilian-born Saruhashi, a double major in computer science and psychology, had worked as a summer intern at Facebook and jumped at the chance to use his skills to help Orchingwa improve the lives of people in prison.
Orchingwa and Saruhashi used their savings to launch the technology nonprofit Ameelio in March 2020. The duo offers families a free mobile app that allows them to send letters into prisons. They since have sent nearly 2 million letters to facilities nationwide, says Orchingwa, Ameelio’s CEO.
They also wanted to break into real-time communications to help families, some of whom pay up to $25 for a 15-minute phone call. They began interviewing formerly and currently incarcerated people and correctional officers to better understand challenges in the system. In June 2021, they launched what they call the nation’s first no-cost prison video calling platform.