Tech is trying to tackle one of the country’s biggest problems: mass incarceration

Stand Together CTO Mark Johnson, Ameelio founder Uzoma "Zo" Orchingwa, and FORTUNE's Michal Lev-Ram at Brainstorm Tech 2022.
Stuart Isett—Fortune

While growing up, Uzoma Orchingwa saw firsthand the difficulties of already incarcerated inmates rejoining a functioning society.

“I realized that there was a gaping need for much better technology in correctional facilities, and that would serve as a gateway to do a lot of transformative things to make sure folks get access to education, stay connected with their families, and never have to return to prison,” he said during Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Co., on Tuesday.

It forms the basis of what Orchingwa, founder of Ameelio, and Stand Together chief technology officer Mark Johnson hope to do as they combat mass incarceration throughout the US. Both of their companies leverage data to solve contributing problems to incarceration such as poverty and lack of education. And both Orchingwa and Johnson say that understanding the root causes is critical to making sure former inmates assimilate back into society.

Using data and software to combat dehumanization

Orchingwa and Johnson point to dehumanization in prisons as a pressing issue. Both say that, at least in the interim, software such as e-messaging and asynchronous access to knowledge can help solve that problem.

But how close are prisons to implementing that technology? Not that much, Johnson says.

“Oftentimes, the person running the prison system doesn’t have requisite data, to understand what’s going on. Imagine running a Fortune 500 company, not having a dashboard,” he said. By partnering with organizations like Recidiviz, prisons can make more data-driven decisions. “So what [Recidiviz has] done is sort of jailbreak this data from these old systems and read it back to those organizations. They can make better decisions.”

Orchingwa says having that data is just the first step. For problems like education access, he says, someone needs to deliver that education considering that developmental learning centers (DLCs) are cash-strapped. Leveraging data can help combat communication problems by eliminating access issues caused by what he Orchingwa believes are the worst actors—the American economy.

“[Companies are] able to sign location monopolies with different jurisdictions and are able to charge as much as they want for phone calls,” he said. “In some jurisdiction folks are paying $30 for a 20-minute phone call, $1 per e-message… I wouldn’t even be able to afford the same contract with my families.”

For inmates getting out of prison, Johnson praises a partnership Free World, an organization that helps inmates get commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) and trains them for trucking jobs. The company also plans to move beyond just CDLs, even using the metaverse to train welders and electricians.

Nonprofit vs. for profit

Orchingwa and Johnson, who started their companies as nonprofits, feel that it is the most ethical way to solve these kinds of problems, including enabling freer access to updated education technologies, communications, and jobs.

Still, they see the value for private companies to make their mark on the space. Vocational work and training people, Orchingwa says, is one such area. By training people for specific skills, he argues, the company and society are in a win-win situation.

While they admit it’s harder to raise money for charitable causes, both executives believe they can convince more people about technology’s critical role in reducing high incarceration and recidivism rates.

“Raising philanthropic capital is a bit more challenging—VC funds, especially—if you’re pitching to foundations who don’t quite understand tax roll, and the ability of technology to really scale and solving problems,” Orchingwa says. “But we’ve also been incredibly fortunate enough to get funding from folks that really see our vision and recognize that software is a powerful tool to solve issues.”

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