The Brief: Some people who are currently incarcerated are making TikToks which include dance routines, skits, prison advice, and more.
Some of the best-known portrayals of incarceration in media and pop culture include shows like Oz, Orange Is The New Black, and reality TV. As people post TikToks from prison, their experiences are being mediated not by writers or producers, but by incarcerated people themselves, with limitations based on their access to cell phones and the app’s algorithm.
At the time of writing, videos associated with the hashtag #PrisonTikTok have been viewed over 4.6 million times and ones associated with #Prison have been viewed over 468 million times. Much of the content to be found under the hashtags #PrisonTikTok and #Prison don’t actually come from prison, as many people use the tags to create skits about prison or to talk about related issues.
TikTok videos shot in prison feature a variety of content including dance moves, workout routines, recipes, cell tours, and other tastes of daily life. Although inmate possession of cell phones and tablets is prohibited in U.S. federal prison, cell phones are commonly smuggled contraband items. According to the app’s community guidelines, TikTok prohibits “the depiction or promotion of criminal activities,” which depending on interpretations of the law could include inmate possession of cell phones. Videos posted from prison on TikTok typically lack identifying details like where they were taken or when, so it’s not always clear what the rules around cell phones are in the various penal institutions these videos are coming from.
TikToks posted from prison are typically more sporadic than the typical user’s, but this hasn’t stopped some incarcerated TikTokers from racking up tens of thousands of followers and millions of views on their videos. Many of the top TikTok prison videos resemble other popular TikTok content, but some people are using their accounts to spread awareness about conditions in prison including the heightened risk of catching COVID-19 there. On an individual level, some incarcerated TikTokers use hashtags to ask that viewers “free” them or include links to their CashApp so that people can send them money.