Why does Prison-Life content on TikTok look so familiar?
Others on the platform post similar videos. One shows how to make a prison potato log, which looks like a giant tamale; another prepares a Prison Wrap, which is similar. There are even plenty of cooking videos made by people still incarcerated: meals cooked in ways that may or may not be legal in prison, the process recorded on phones that probably aren’t. (You can watch clips that appear to show people frying empanadas in a tin can, cooking eggs in a plastic bag, or toasting wraps on a metal bunk.) The videos have tend to be optimistic and often tinged with nostalgia. Marci Marie, for example, says the Cookie Rolls were a special treat, made when someone had something to celebrate.
Cooking is just a subset of TikTok content created by formerly (and currently) incarcerated people. Some are dedicated to facing the camera and seriously educating viewers about prison life, telling stories and answering questions. Marci Marie responded to several, including “Is it safe to make friends in prison?” (yes), and responded to a post about how to iron clothes (soak in water, press with a mug or pot lid, dry under your bed). Others describe the day they came out or how the holidays were celebrated or the best form for burpees. The more you explore prison life content on TikTok, the more it seems to mirror all of the platform’s popular genres — cooking, life tips, bored dancing, workout tips — until life at the interior ceases to seem so distinct from life outside.
America has no dearth of stories about prison life, ranging from century-old memoirs and novels to recent film and television. But in recent decades, most of these portrayals have focused on the more shocking aspects of high-security prisons. Reality shows and documentaries — National Geographic’s “Lockdown,” MSNBC’s “Lockup,” A&E’s “Behind Bars,” Netflix’s “I Am a Killer” — often or exclusively focus on the worst, most dangerous facilities , highlighting the breakouts, riots and intense conflict. TV dramas like “Oz” and “Prison Break” did the same. America’s prison population grew in the 1980s and 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 2013 arrival of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” that television got an expanded depiction of everyday life in a minimum security prison.
This focus on extreme conditions surely distorts our perception of prison life. We are shown hostile, alien, degraded environments (“A different world” with “its own rules,” as the intro to an episode of “Behind Bars” puts it) filled with violent and dangerous people (“killers, thieves and rapists”, per the intro of an episode of “Lockdown”). These terrifying conditions are undoubtedly real, both in documented prisons and others. But when it comes to the system as a whole and the life within it, they may not be entirely representative. The United States incarcerates people at a surprisingly high rate – more, by most estimates, than any other country on the planet. The majority of the 1.2 million people incarcerated in our prisons are serving shorter sentences in lower security facilities, often for non-violent crimes. Their day-to-day experiences, even the darkest ones, tend to go unnoticed in the prison dramas, which hover above the routine of imprisonment – the glitchy, expensive video calls; inedible food; the painful hours of solitary confinement – for a whirlwind of murder plots, escape plans and sexual violence.