An Open Letter to State Broadband Leaders on Digital Equity for Incarcerated People

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

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Monday, December 11, 2023

Digital Beat

An Open Letter to State Broadband Leaders on
Digital Equity for Incarcerated People

Dan “April” Feng, Chief Operating Officer of Ameelio

Unbeknownst to many, who can enjoy unlimited data and calls for about $30 a month, that same amount is what the families of incarcerated individuals pay for a single 30-minute video call with their loved ones behind bars.[1] And, even on outdated pay phones, a call still costs $3 every 15 minutes on average.[2]

These exploitative costs are borne predominantly by low-income families, who face the hard choice between accruing significant bills—sometimes having to borrow money or compromise on medical care—and not being able to connect on birthdays and holidays, see children graduate, or say final goodbyes to parents. Many of these families struggle in silence, amidst the shame of having a loved one in prison—when it comes to caring for the incarcerated, they assume people will look aside.

But there are many families like this. Too many, in fact. 1.8 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S. Almost one in two Americans have or had an immediate family member incarcerated. I want to bring forward the stories of just two of them. Both are Ameelio users. 

Violet had just finished graduate school when her father was sentenced.

“When my father was incarcerated, his communication was altered—it was difficult to truly be ourselves. We primarily used Corrlinks to communicate—phone calls were too expensive and physical letters took too long. The platform looked really cold and distant, and it wasn’t easy to use. My father was an endearing, comical person, and that side of him was gone through Corrlinks. It was just a way to let us know that he was there, and we were here.”

James was not in a financially stable point in his life when his little brother was arrested.

“It was a wake-up call for me when my brother called me from jail, nearly in tears… The 30-second free first call they let incarcerated people make in the jail he was at went something like this… ‘I’m so sorry brother. I messed up. I can’t believe it’s gotten like this. Please answer the phone. I just want to talk. Love ya, bro.’ He tried calling me back a couple of times right after that and I couldn’t answer it because I didn't have any money and there was no way to tell him that I couldn't afford it. The calls kept coming every day for a week and then would slow down. I’d get a call once every few days. Then the calls just stopped. The relationship between my little brother and I was never the same after that. With no one on the outside to talk to for advice, guidance, and emotional support, he just kept going down the rabbit hole, so to speak. That experience damaged his trust in his family and in people in general...”

This dire reality for many is fueled by a market failure: The prison communication industry is dominated by two companies—Securus and ViaPath. Together, they serve the vast majority of jails and prisons. Bundling of services is standard practice: devices, communication services, payment services, and even ownership of the inmate networks. Political indifference, limited competition, service bundling, contract lock-ins, and poor infrastructure have all been part of a systemic failure to provide affordable and quality communication for the incarcerated and their families. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called it “the clearest, most egregious case of market failure I have seen” in her 16 years as a regulator.[3]

This failure also comes at a terrible social cost: Video calls between incarcerated people and their families reduce reconviction up to 31 percent, especially for those whose families are too far away to visit in person.[4] Communication between people with mental health issues and their support system is critical to their stability and well-being. Secure and private communication is essential for individuals to connect with their legal counsel and exercise their civic rights. To quote Haley Hodges, a correctional officer at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women (Ameelio's institution partner), “It’s probably one of the best treatments we have here… when family members have something big like graduations, births, anniversaries… Them (the inmates) being able to be part of that is huge. It gives them something to work toward… Or maybe just that they are not alone.”


Ameelio submits the following recommendations on how to bring affordable, accessible, and quality connectivity behind bars. We hope they are helpful as broadband and corrections teams work together to deliver digital equity to the incarcerated people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country.


Status quo:

From broadband fiber to the wiring of inmate networks to telecommunication hardware and software, the entire spectrum of Incarcerated People’s Communications Services (IPCS) of correctional systems is usually owned by a single, incumbent, private vendor. Bundling of IPCS enables incumbents to create artificial barriers for competitors and new entrants, divorce price from cost, and provide low-quality service under impunity.


  • Contract with an external entity to do a network and hardware assessment for correctional facilities. Many inmate networks have gone decades without proper assessments, leading to compromised network security and quality. States should conduct a thorough evaluation of the security, usability, and quality of these networks.
  • Include correctional facilities as anchor institutions. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) defines a community anchor institution (CAI) as “An entity… that facilitates greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations, including, but not limited to, low-income individuals, unemployed individuals, children, the incarcerated, and aged individuals.” At least 23 states have already designated prisons, jails, houses of corrections, and juvenile detention centers as CAIs, opening up access to the historical federal broadband funding opportunity made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.[5]
  • Incentivize network sharing in the procurement process. Encourage network agnosticism in RFP scoring rubrics. The Pennsylvania BEAD Plan provides good examples: While BEAD limits how funds can be used directly for projects in areas where service exists, the scoring rubric may prioritize ISPs that bring competition into the market statewide. Examples may include a commitment to expanding coverage in areas served by competitors, or by creating a foothold for new entrants and small local ISPs to access BEAD funds and grow their presence.”


Status Quo:

Communication services are unaffordable, low-quality, and difficult to adopt.

Across the country, a 15-minute video call can cost up to $20, and e-messages are charged at $1 per message. A 30-minute educational video requires $9 to watch and even more to download.

Dropped video calls are commonplace. According to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation survey, 70 percent of tablet-based calls “go silent at one point or just hang up.”[6] Incarcerated individuals also reported that downloading a 30-minute educational video might take hours.


  • Partner with legislatures to introduce bills that lower costs for communication services. A wave of “no cost calls” legislation is sweeping through the country and broadband leaders can play a key part. In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) is partnering with the legislative committees and correctional agencies to assess the digital needs inside facilities. MBI also connected organizations providing digital literacy programs with service providers inside facilities.
  • Provide publicly-owned and multifunctional hardware assets in correctional facilities. Optimize for modern devices that enable multiple functions. For example, tablets with cameras, keyboards, earbuds, and microphones or Chromebooks that have Microsoft Office Suites. Further, ensure that these devices allow for a variety of applications to function on them. 


Status Quo:

Most correctional agencies lack basic digital infrastructure, hindering digital adoption inside the walls. Additionally, many incarcerated individuals do not have the level of digital literacy needed to return to a digitized society comfortably and safely.


  • Fund in-facility technology/digital centers: Create spaces where incarcerated people can approach new tech capabilities safely and collaboratively. Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) in Colorado is building a state-of-the-art technology center, where inmates can utilize video conferencing calls, conduct virtual court hearings, and access Google Chromebooks for educational programs.
  • Invest in digital navigators in prisons and jails: Targeted outreach with trusted messengers can address language and awareness barriers.[7] A digital navigator can serve as the point of contact for reporting, analyzing and fulfilling the digital needs of incarcerated individuals, as well as helping the correctional officers adapt to the new technologies used in the facilities.
  • Dedicate funding for digital skills training: This funding should be used for a multitude of activities, including but not limited to assessment of current needs, digital literacy skill training, internet safety training, access to modern devices, etc. 
  • Pair up state IT teams with departments of corrections and sheriffs offices to support and oversee the network infrastructure within correctional facilities.


Nelson Mandela once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s BEAD and digital equity funding provide a generational opportunity where digital equity for incarcerated people can finally be achieved. As state broadband leaders, you have the power to lay the very foundation to get us started. Together, you can make decisions that will enable incarcerated people to enter the digital age prepared, ready to contribute to their communities from the day they return home.


Ameelio is the only non-profit IPCS (“Incarcerated People’s Communications Services”) provider in the U.S. With a mission to disrupt the industry, we founded Ameelio to fundamentally transform corrections by empowering incarcerated people with vital communication and education tools to rebuild their lives. Since we started in 2020, we have served over 15,000 incarcerated people in 21 state and county-level correctional facilities across 6 states.

[1] “Can You Hear Me Now?” The Marshall Project, December 19, 2019. 

[2] “Incarcerated people face heightened costs to communicate with families”, PBS NewsHour, April 7, 2023.

[3] Why Prison Phone Rates Keep Going Up Even Though The FCC Regulated Them, International Business Times, June 30, 2016.

[4] Duwe, G., & McNeeley, S. (2021). Just as Good as the Real Thing? The Effects of Prison Video Visitation on Recidivism. Crime & Delinquency, 67(4), 475-497.

[5]  OK, CO, WV, CA, ME, TX, RI, NC, NY, HI, MN, NH, AL, MA, FL

[6] Empowering Women Impacted by Incarceration (EWII), CDCR/ViaPath Communication Challenges survey, 2023

[7] California broadband working group, March 2023.

Dan “April” Feng currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Ameelio, a non-profit startup that connects incarcerated individuals and their families through low-cost and cutting-edge technology. 

Prior to joining Ameelio, April worked with Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, at the University of Chicago’s Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change. There, April led projects to use data to improve placement outcomes for foster kids, map loneliness, and introduce data science to K-12 education. April also worked in the Parliament of the United Kingdom for Mr. Barry Sheerman MP during the time of Brexit. She received a Master's in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics, and a Bachelor's in Economics and Political Science from the University of Notre Dame. 

April can recite most of Confucious from memory, and loves walking and eating with her husband Santi.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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