Television shows like Prison Break and Criminal Minds are created to assuage public unease. They assure us that the criminal justice system deals with ‘bad’ people, and the underlying social issues of our country. One of the prison’s many functions is to free the collective of intellectual work and radical thought, and this system succeeds by painting the incarcerated as a stain on an otherwise law-abiding society. Until recently, media coverage aligned with the clear-cut narrative put forth by these institutions. TikTok and other forms of social media are flipping the script.
The TikTok videos of formerly incarcerated individuals have amassed hundreds of thousands of likes during the past few years of the site’s sudden rise in popularity. Users like Jesse Crosson (@second_chancer) use their platform to answer questions about topics ranging from systemic issues in the sentencing process to phone sex while incarcerated. Other video creators film directly from their prison cells using dated mobile phones. Regardless of the content of the video, the comments are routine. Users have hyper specific questions about dental care and security levels, and they give the impression of travelers researching the cultural customs of a country they have yet to visit.
This new cognizance of the nuances of daily life in prison lies in direct contrast to the knowledge of previous decades. Once sentenced, a person becomes property of the State and loses value in the eyes of the public. Their individuality is exchanged for the label of ‘criminal’ to better conform to the public perception of lawbreakers: brawny men with tattoos, captured and locked away on television screens.
With the increasing dependency on social media apps as news outlets and opinion-feeders, formerly incarcerated people are able to share their experiences with a multitude of viewers. Younger generations are beginning to take a closer look at systems previously considered essential by the masses. However, despite the positive impact of this outward consciousness shift, the perception of prisons as inevitable seems to remain.
To abolish prisons, we must first acknowledge that they are cruel. The belief in this ideology among left-leaning TikTok users appears to be common. But it is the second realization that seems to be the trouble – that no one, despite the crime they commit, deserves cruelty; it will not rehabilitate them. The same accounts that post videos about daily life in prisons also share clips titled “Prison time reaction pt.1” (@waftiy on TikTok). Under these videos, users comment that those who would defend a man convicted of vehicular manslaughter “don’t uderstad [sic] law and orded [sic],” or that life imprisonment is ‘deserved.’
The contrast between the empathy users display under videos of what they perceive to be ‘good criminals’ and the blatant hatred for ‘bad criminals’ is disappointing, but nevertheless unsurprising. In order to justify one’s unconscious adherence to the prison industrial complex, one must prove to themselves that there are still those who deserve to suffer in prison – that incarcerating people they identify as careless or dangerous will ‘fix’ them before they are spit back out into society. Prisons will never be abolished until the public perception on their usefulness fully shifts, and TikTok emerges as an unlikely instigator of that process.