by Chuck Sharman
In the age of social media, when anyone can become a star overnight, there is an unlikely group joining the ranks of internet fame-seekers: prisoners. From behind bars at a UK prison, one incarcerated video blogger has reportedly amassed 24,000 followers who watch his Tik Tok videos, earning him £1,700 (about $2,129 USD) monthly.
A report posted to the web news site Inquisitr on April 22, 2023, notes that Tik Tok videos posted by British prisoners cheekily claim to be coming from “HMP Butlins” – appropriating the name of a popular vacation tour operator to one of the UK’s lockups.
In the U.S., an imprisoned Florida “vlogger” garnered 153,000 followers and 8 million views of videos she posted to Tik Tok in late 2021, chronicling drug overdoses and prisoner fights, as well as the struggles elderly prisoners face. [See: PLN, July 30, 2022, online.]
So how do these prisoners do it? To film their videos, they need a cellphone – illegal contraband behind bars. However, such bans are clearly ineffective; the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported confiscating almost 750 cellphones every month since 2019. And the number that remains undetected? It is exponentially higher, experts say.
Once a video is made, it can be shared in a number of ways. It can be posted directly online, if the prisoner can get a cell signal on his phone – often impossible in the rural areas where many prisons sit. But using a prison’s electronic messaging service, it can still be shared with a friend or loved one on the outside, who then can post it to the internet. Keiko Kopp, the Florida prisoner who gained Tik Tok fame, used the email system at Lowell Correctional Institution to send her videos to her mother to post on the site.
Of course, social media use by prisoners prompts scolding from those insisting that it glamorizes criminal behavior. Even prisoner advocates worry that it opens another way to exploit incarcerated people, as their content is highjacked by for-profit companies.
But prisoners are like other users of Tik Tok and similar platforms, eager to showcase skills at things like singing and dancing, even cooking or applying makeup. For some, the newfound popularity leads to job opportunities upon release from prison. With social media becoming increasingly integral to career development strategies, prisoners daring to think past their incarceration may simply be better prepared for release by investing time in learning and navigating social networks – no matter the risks involved.
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