• Mariah Norman

Pandemic Prisoners Turn to TikTok

Inmates are serving death sentences by COVID-19. In the place society tries most to forget about, TikTok is giving us a glimpse of humanity.

Places like Cook County Jail (above) and Ohio's Marion Correctional have positivity rates of 80% (Olson/Getty).

It has long been observed that true ingenuity flows from the least expected places. TikTok has been no exception.


This rapidly growing social media empire provides incarcerated people the extraordinary opportunity to connect with the outside world they’ve been forcibly condemned from, so long as they manage to procure a contraband cell phone. In turn, these wildly creative individuals offer a window into their own everyday lives from a perspective that’s never been accessible to the public before, sparking a whole new category of mega-viral content.


From the comfort of our screens, we are able to witness the joy in silly dances and recreated internet challenges, the pain in struggling to afford price-gouged phone calls and seeking to satisfy endless hunger, and the friendship in shared laughs, tearful homesickness, and heavy remorse.


In short, we’re simply watching people act like people always have.

So why does it seem like we’re being let in on a grand secret? As if someone has leaned in to captivate us with mind-shattering fantastical whisperings, as long as we promise not to tell. Why did it take TikTok for us to realize how undeniably human prisoners are?

Perhaps it is because in America we have been taught that incarcerated people do not deserve to be treated as actual human beings—let alone be seen as one. To believe otherwise feels like an act of rebellion.

Amassing a billion users in under a year, TikTok has become a social saving grace in US facilities (Valerie Macon/AFP).

But we didn’t reach this point overnight. America’s gradual and systematic dehumanization of marginalized populations is a generational issue rooted in racism and classism that’s persisted from womb to tomb—or cradle to cell. Centuries of white supremacy perpetuating the stereotype of Black and Brown communities as "dangerous," "undignified," and even "animal-like" led to large-scale inequity, such as the "white flight" in the 1950s and ‘60s where thousands of white American families fled urban environments as they became more racially diverse. Their escape from Black and Brown populations not only physically isolated, but societally polarized millions of innocent people. White America had no issue as these groups were institutionally redlined, denied mortgages and federal financial support, inadequately educated, and eventually, brutally policed and jailed. To them, it seemed not only logical but necessary for the government to restrict the monstrosities they’d been taught to fear from daring to pursue success in their human, wonderfully white world.


Seventy years later, we’re not too far off from this mindset of alienation and moral superiority. If we were, people wouldn’t be so utterly baffled to watch a TikTok of a person in prison and find the humanity in themselves unapologetically staring back.

The criminalization of poverty teaches us from a young age that all crime is rooted in evil, and those who break the law are bloodthirsty, twisted beasts that are unworthy of participating in society with the rest of us "good people."

We are never encouraged to consider the environment that fosters the behavior we’ve criminalized, and who those laws actually apply to. We are barred from questioning why we glamorize rich white executives doing lines of cocaine after securing a deal, yet a poor Black man from the "bad side of town" is serving five years in prison for the same offense. We also don’t consider why people are so desperate and willing to risk their lives to obtain money in the first place. Instead, we are trained to believe the young woman robbing a gas station to afford baby formula is an unforgivable creature. The teenager running drugs in their neighborhood to afford a chronically-ill family member’s medical bills deserves to rot in a jail cell for what they’ve done.


After all: you do the crime, you do the time, right?


By the time they step foot in the cop car, these disproportionately incarcerated marginalized communities have been intentionally facing dehumanization from a richer, whiter society for their entire lives. Total condemnation from society is the final step in reducing the humanity of millions of Americans, including innocent people, to mere numbers in monthly crime statistics.


In regular times, this dehumanization is disgraceful and revolting at best. But in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this lack of empathy or regard for people in prisons' lives has proven to be extremely deadly, and a lack of response from public officials has detrimentally exacerbated this issue.

According to data collected in December 2020 by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, 1 in 5 prisoners in the U.S. has tested positive for COVID-19, in contrast to 1 in 20 in the general population. In some states, more than half of the population of their prisoners have been infected. Nationwide, more than 1,700 incarcerated people have lost their lives to this virus and at least 275,000 people have been infected. It’s important to note that these numbers are also assumed to be much higher, with prisons reluctant to collecting and revealing updated information.


These horrifying statistics are not the result of mere chance. Jails and prisons across the United States have chosen to neglect their own state’s public health guidelines, knowingly exposing and encouraging a deadly virus to run rampant with hardly any restrictions or safety measures. In several facilities, Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex, has witnessed obviously sick people being refused testing and potentially life-saving treatment. Paired with the inability to socially distance within overcrowded facilities, poor ventilation, insufficient PPE, and already unhygienic communal conditions, people are getting even more sick for longer than necessary. In the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, prisoners have been reportedly confined to open dorms with over 100 infected men, people lying sick and untreated on the floor, too weak to get up on their own.

People are either serving death sentences by COVID-19 themselves—some without even reaching their trial date—or witnessing their peers serve one. These vile, inhumane conditions allow prisons to act as judge, jury, and executioner.

With vaccine rollout procedures at the forefront of every state and federal official’s minds, one of the most at-risk populations has been thrown to the backburner. After Colorado’s initial plans put prisoners receiving vaccinations before the general public, their governor, Jared Polis (D), told the press, “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime.” Many politicians have also been extremely reluctant to approve early releases for at-risk populations within prisons, a direction that would both save lives and reduce overcrowding.

These people are being abandoned and left for dead. American society has sunk so low in our treatment of people in prison that we do not value them as we would a free human life, and in turn, do not value their wellbeing in this pandemic. To me, it is one of the most shameful things to occur, not just among the plethora of our country’s shortcomings exposed in the past year due to this public health crisis, but in our entire history as a nation.


However, there is hope. I believe there always is, even if we must search in the most unexpected places.


As I scroll through 60-second TikTok videos of people in prison, I watch humanity prevail in the face of horror. I watch as these individuals stage a revolution behind bars with each unabashed smile and, despite the centuries of monstrosity stacked against them, be undeniably human, in all of its messy, beautiful glory.


And I smile back, in hopes that the millions of other viewers not only truly see these humans in prisons for the first time, but feel for them too, and become more willing to fight for the justice they’ve always deserved.


Even if it must start with a TikTok dance.


Cover: AFP-Getty

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