Why does Prison-Life content on TikTok feel so familiar?

Others on the platform post similar videos. One demonstrates how to make a prison potato log that looks like a giant tamale; the other prepares a prison tape similar to hers. There are even numerous cooking videos made by people who are still incarcerated: meals prepared using methods that may or may not be legal in prison, a process recorded on phones that most likely aren’t. (You can watch videos showing people frying empanadas in a jar, cooking eggs in a plastic bag, or frying rolls on a metal cot.) The videos tend to be upbeat and often have a tinge of nostalgia. Marcy Marie, for example, says that biscuit buns were a special treat made when someone had something to celebrate.

Cooking is just one part of the TikTok content created by former (and current) inmates. Some dedicate themselves to looking into the camera and seriously educating viewers about prison life by telling stories and answering questions. Marcy Marie answered many questions, including “Is it safe to make friends in prison?” (yes), and responded to a message about how to iron clothes (soak in water, wring out with a cup or pot lid, dry under the bed). Others describe the day they were released, or how the holidays were celebrated, or the best uniform for a burpee. The more you explore content about prison life on TikTok, the more it seems to reflect all the platform’s popular genres — cooking, life advice, bored dancing, workout tips — until life inside doesn’t seem so different from life anymore. . outside.

America does not have the paucity of narratives about prison life, ranging from memoirs and novels from a hundred years ago to recent films and television. But in recent decades, most of these images have focused on the most shocking aspects of maximum security prisons. Reality and documentary shows—National Geographic’s Lockdown, MSNBC’s Quarantine, A&E’s Behind Bars, Netflix’s I’m a Killer—often or exclusively focus on the ugliest, most dangerous sites, highlighting escapes, riots, and poignant conflicts. TV dramas like Oz and Prison Break have done the same. The prison population in America skyrocketed in the 1980s and 90s, but not until 2013 when Netflix came along. “Orange is the new black” that there was some kind of extended depiction of everyday life in a minimum security prison on television.

This emphasis on extreme conditions certainly distorts our understanding of prison life. We are shown a hostile, alien, and corrupted environment (“Another World” with “its own rules,” as stated in the intro to the episode “Behind Bars”) filled with violent, dangerous people (“murderers, robbers, and rapists,” according to the intro to episode “Lockdown”). These appalling conditions are no doubt real 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 imprisons people at an astonishingly high rate—by most estimates, more than any other country on the planet. Most of the 1.2 million people in our prisons are serving shorter sentences in lower security facilities, often for non-violent offences. Their daily experiences, even the darkest ones, tend to go unnoticed in prison dramas that bypass the prison routine – buggy, expensive video calls; inedible food; harrowing hours in solitary confinement due to murder plots, escape plans and sexual assault.