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Released from prison, TikTok influencers are reshaping the way we think about life behind bars

“Upside down” by Keri Blakinger is a partnership between NBC News and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system. The column draws on Blakinger’s unique perspective as an investigative and formerly incarcerated journalist.

My favorite TikTok video begins with a well-cut man wearing a baseball cap walking down a snowy street.

“I’ve been going to my favorite teacher since I applied for 21 years in prison,” he tells the camera. “She’s the BOMB. She doesn’t know I’m coming. Let’s surprise her!

He knocks, then turns back to the camera.

“I’m so nervous right now,” the caption read.

A few seconds later, the door opens.

“Mr. Lacé? Oh my God! How are you?” shouts his former teacher, who bursts into laughter and then tears before inviting him inside.

The 54-second video went viral last year with over 2.7 million views. Michael Lacey – who spent 21 years in Indiana prisons and now posts under the username Comrade Sinque – has become one of the top creators in the TikTok prison niche area, where people who have spent tell the rest of the world how it is and put faces to the concept of mass incarceration.

“People just give you a real life example of what this life is like,” he told me. And the community of formerly incarcerated creators and their supporters have been overwhelmingly supportive, he said. “It’s kind of ironic,” he added, “but TikTok jail is one of the most positive places on the app.”

There is, of course, another variety of prison TikTok – videos of people currently incarcerated with contraband phones showing the world the appalling conditions they live in and the variety of terrible food served to them. These types of videos started going viral around the start of the pandemic. But now it’s posts from former prisoners that seem to be getting more attention.

Some videos are heartwarming, like Lacey’s. Others are sobering, like Jessica Kent’s messages about giving birth while incarcerated. Some are informative, like Tayler Arrington’s articles on the use of sign language behind bars and how women deal with time in prison. The latter was a 59-second video showing the 24-year-old in her living room staring straight at the camera, spitting out quick facts. It has racked up over 11 million views.

“When you’re in jail, they don’t sell tampons – you have to make them yourself,” she said, prompting a host of horrified comments.

Still other videos are funny, like Colin Rea’s riffs on the ridiculous assumptions people make about prison. In every viral post, there’s a bit of a redemption narrative: it’s a place where people who have done their time can become influencers, both to earn a living and shape the way their followers think about prisons. and the people there.

“People think ‘criminal’ and they immediately think of the worst people imaginable,” Rea told me from her home in Pennsylvania. “It’s so much more common than people realize, and there’s such a stigma behind it.”

Like Lacey, he hopes telling his story to hundreds of thousands of followers could help change that.

Over a billion people use the app every month, and there are hundreds of distinct communities, from BookTok to LesbianTikTok, from FoodieTok to StripperTok. To find these communities, users swipe again and again to scroll through a selection of clips curated by the app’s closely monitored algorithm.

After months of searching and scrolling through videos, I ended up with a personalized feed – known as the For You Page – filled with videos about lesbians, depression and prisons, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. . When I started writing this column, I made the leap from scrolling to publishing after recording a few quick videos on prison lingo, how gender works in prison, and the economics of prison labor.

I soon realized that I was better at words than videos, and called my friend Morgan Godvin for help. Like me, she made time for a charge stemming from her addiction and also made a foray into TikTok a few weeks ago. Her very first video – explaining why she went to prison – went viral overnight.

As we scrolled and chatted, I noticed how hard it was to find color creators, unless I started scrolling through the other side of the TikTok prison, videos made by current prisoners. Many of them don’t show their faces because it’s illegal to have a cellphone in prison, but when they do show up, the demographics are almost the opposite of post-prison TikTok.

When I pointed this out to Morgan, who is white, she noticed it too.

“Most people who’ve been in prison are people of color,” she said, “so why are most prison content creators white?”

Lacey, with 863,000 followers, is black, but among the most followed prison accounts he is more the exception than the rule. A thorough search of hashtags related to the app lock revealed a few other black creators, including fitness trainer Dontrell Britton (322,000 followers) and prison consultant Dejarion Echols (56,000 followers).

It’s just another example in the digital world of the underrepresentation of people of color,” Lacey told me. “I know there are people on TikTok who are on the same path as me. But when it comes to black creators, you almost have to consciously try to find them – they don’t show up on your For Your Page .

Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor who studies tech ethics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wasn’t surprised to hear Lacey’s observation. But, she said, it can be difficult to pinpoint a single reason why so many of the most followed TikTok jailhouse creators are white.

“There’s a ton of confounding factors about who’s on TikTok and who’s not and even who got released from jail and who didn’t,” she said. “But there’s certainly been a lot of conversation over the past two years about the potential for racism in the TikTok algorithm.”

After all, since it’s all about predicting which videos users will like, algorithms can also reflect the biases of their human users and creators.

In 2020, TikTok cited a “technical issue” and apologized for removing “Black Lives Matter” posts and pledged to promote more diversity on the platform. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this column.

As Morgan and I continued to talk about the ups and downs of the platform, she reflected on the benefits of being able to share an experience behind bars with thousands of followers – then offered a different suggestion as to why. which the platform might have fewer black creators posting about life after prison.

“There might be fewer content creators of color because they can’t afford the stigma of being a criminal,” she said. “I was able to build a whole professional career on the fact that I was in prison, and I must recognize that there is an element of privilege in that.”

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