In Kevin Smith’s most popular TikTok video, he shows off a makeshift water heater he built in prison. Narrating over Eminem’s song “Godzilla,” Smith explains how he diverted an electrical wire from a light fixture to a metal bucket hung from a hook on the wall. “Before I made it to work release this is how I made hot water!” the caption reads. The video is tagged #prisonlife.
“I posted the video just to show people the ingenuity of prisoners,” says Smith, who was released from Florida’s South Bay Correctional Facility in April after completing a seven-year sentence for falsely impersonating a law enforcement officer. On TikTok, the clip has been viewed almost a million times.
TikTok excels at connecting users based on their identities, and as a result, there’s a corner of the app for almost everyone, from Cop TikTok and Doctor TikTok, to Lesbian TikTok and the teens who gripe about their strict parents. With more than 2 million people locked up in prisons or jails in the United States, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a Prison TikTok, too. There, inmates use contraband cell phones to share dancing videos and funny skits, as well as broadcast information about conditions at their facilities. The lives of incarcerated people are often intentionally hidden from the public, but on TikTok, amid an historic push for criminal justice reform, they’re going viral.
Like most TikTok subgenres, there’s plenty of lip syncing and elaborate, coordinated dance routines on Prison TikTok. But the most popular videos often depict daily life: Prisoners give tours of their cells, show how they cook, and film the stray cats who linger outside the barred windows. A clip featuring a group of inmates explaining how they made a bootleg phone charger has been viewed more than 10 million times on the platform. In another video with almost 9 million views, an inmate memes about the difficulties of being bisexual in an environment where macho masculinity is the norm. Some Prison TikTok accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, many of whom stumble upon the videos through TikTok’s recommendation algorithm. (TikTok did not provide comment for this story.)
Recently, fears about getting sick are a regular topic of discussion, as the coronavirus pandemic ravages correctional facilities across the country. The largest known clusters of the virus in the US are now all inside prisons or jails, according to New York Times data. In April, after rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was released from prison over fears he might contract Covid-19, the same inmate who filmed the bisexuality video went on TikTok to express outrage that other, non-famous prisoners weren’t also freed. “There’s tons of people in federal prison that are locked up, that are going to die if [Covid-19] gets into these prisons, which it already has,” they said, adding that many people at their facility have preexisting conditions like cancer and heart disease. “If you think that is messed up, just like this video and share it so that hopefully someone that matters can see it.” During the pandemic, other prisoners in states including Alabama and Ohio have used cell phones to contact news outlets, raising awareness about issues like not having enough soap available to wash their hands.
From solitary confinement to overcrowding and violence, atrocious conditions inside prisons have been an issue long before the pandemic. The population behind bars in the US is disproportionately made up of Black and Hispanic people, and overall constitutes one of the most isolated and marginalized groups in American society. Civil liberties groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly called on federal and local government to reform prisons and reduce the incarcerated population overall.
Contraband cell phones are one of the few avenues for prisoners to call attention to problems from the inside. Earlier this month, one TikTok user who indicated they were an inmate at a Mississippi prison posted a video of a flooded cell unit, and said they had been unable to shower for days as a result of the damage. Like many members of Prison TikTok, they listed their Cash app handle and asked viewers to send money if they could. In January, inmates from Mississippi also used contraband cell phones to speak out about rampant mold and rat problems at one prison, as well as about inmates who needed medical attention.
“When people in prison bring attention to these conditions, like on TikTok with their cell phones, they’re really risking a lot,” says Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform. In 2010, then president Barack Obama signed a law criminalizing the use or possession of mobile devices by federal inmates, and permitting anyone caught smuggling one to be sentenced up to a year in prison. While cell phones have still proliferated behind bars, often brought in by guards or smuggled over fences, inmates can be severely punished if they’re caught with one. Ghandnoosh says they may be denied parole or their sentences may be lengthened, and if they expose prison problems, inmates could face retaliation from guards.
Both Republicans and Democrats have argued that harsh punishments are necessary because cell phones fuel violence in prisons and allow inmates to facilitate crimes while they’re incarcerated. In a Fox News op-ed published last year, US senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) argued that “cell phones have quickly become inmates’ most dangerous connection to the outside world.”
While it’s true that crimes have been orchestrated using contraband cell phones, criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people say many prisoners use the devices for innocuous purposes. “I used my phone mainly to educate myself. I would download PDF books onto the Micro SD card and transfer them onto a prison GED computer and read all day long,” says Smith, the former prisoner in Florida. He says he kept the device in a hole drilled into the wall, hidden behind a piece of tape covered with paint.
Adnan Khan, the executive director of Re:Store Justice, a criminal justice reform organization he helped start while in prison, says he often used contraband phones to search for basic information online. “There were times routinely where my cellmate and I would try to argue facts about something and we would say, You know what, Google it,” he says. “Google was such a secret gift to us.” Khan was sentenced to 25 years to life after he helped rob a marijuana dealer when he was 18, whom his co-conspirator stabbed to death. His sentence was later overturned, after California changed a state law that had permitted people who participated in a crime that led to a death to be charged with murder, even if they didn’t kill or intend to kill anyone themselves.
Most of all, Khan says, he and his fellow prisoners used cell phones to communicate with their families. While prisoners are generally permitted to contact family members through approved means, advocates say they’re often inadequate. Phone calls are usually kept short, around 15 minutes. Letters must be screened and can take weeks or even months to arrive. Email services, which charge loved ones for every message they send to a prisoner, can be prohibitively expensive. On top of it all, prisons are often located in remote areas, making it difficult for family members to visit with any regularity. “It’s these kinds of constraints that legislators and prison officials have created that push people to use contraband cell phones,” says Ghandnoosh.
The day Khan got a contraband phone in prison, he says, he and his cellmate spent the night sobbing as they reconnected with family members. His cellmate hadn’t talked to some of his relatives in years. “In a couple of hours, he had located his brother, he had located his mom and he just cried,” he says. The device allowed Khan to have long conversations with his own mother, who opened up for the first time about her arranged marriage with his father. “The best rehabilitative thing I have ever seen has been a cell phone—that’s not hyperbole,” he says.
Cell phones “tether people to the outside world,” says Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan whose Pulitzer Prize–winning book Blood in the Water recounts the Attica prison uprising of 1971 and the mistreatment of inmates. “They allow people to do homework with their children, they allow them to maintain the bonds that will keep them housed and clothed and fed when they return home.”
Mass incarceration doesn’t only affect inmates themselves, it also affects their communities—and those people are also represented on TikTok. Samantha Goodman has almost 50,000 followers on the platform, where she refers to herself as a #prisonwife. “The most important thing to me is just raising awareness about prison families in general,” she says. Her husband, Samuel Goodman, is serving a 10-year sentence in New York for assault and robbery, among other charges. (Samantha says he was struggling with addiction when he committed the crimes.) “I’m not out here screaming that my husband is innocent and needs to be freed; I’m simply asking that he keeps his basic human rights and dignity intact,” she says.
The couple have known each other since childhood, Samantha says, and on TikTok her videos poking fun at the challenges of maintaining their relationship have attracted over a million views. Some of her most popular posts capture mundane details of their lives, like what kinds of food she’s permitted to bring Samuel, or vlogs from when she visits him. “I feel like it’s important to share things about food or cigarettes because it humanizes them. They’re not just warm bodies with numbers,” says Samantha.
While she receives a lot of encouraging support, Samantha says there are also plenty of commenters who tell her that she should be ashamed of her marriage, or who incorrectly assume that Samuel is Black. “He’s white. But it shows racism is still very much alive and people are incredibly ignorant,” she says. Samantha is unafraid to shoot back at the critics, and in the process, helps destigmatize the experiences of millions of Americans with loved ones behind bars.
Even the most lighthearted videos on Prison TikTok serve an important political purpose, says Thompson. Incarcerated people are frequently painted as barbaric villains, she says, but Prison TikTok focuses on their everyday humanity. “The reason that people find that so shocking but interesting to watch is because we have been sold this false bill of goods that the people behind bars are animals,” she says. “This shows that they are somebody’s mother, somebody’s father, somebody’s kid. And they do in fact sometimes laugh, despite the brutality all around them.”
More Great WIRED Stories
- My friend was struck by ALS. To fight back, he built a movement
- Poker and the psychology of uncertainty
- Retro hackers are building a better Nintendo Game Boy
- The therapist is in—and it’s a chatbot app
- How to clean up your old social media posts
- ? Is the brain a useful model for AI? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ??♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones