Video app: Ex-prisoners tell TikTok what everyday life in US prisons really looks like

When Michael Lacey went to jail, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter didn't exist—and certainly not TikTok.

Video app: Ex-prisoners tell TikTok what everyday life in US prisons really looks like

When Michael Lacey went to jail, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter didn't exist—and certainly not TikTok. The American was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 1997 for manslaughter. When he was released after 21 years, he was faced with a digital world that he was unfamiliar with. Today, Lacey is known as "Comrade Sinque" on the video platform TikTok - and has almost 900,000 followers there.

Michael Lacey is one of several former inmates who regularly report on life in US prisons on TikTok and thus generate a great deal of interest. They clear up prejudices, tell stories about the reality behind bars, answer questions from users and want to show that convicted criminals are also human beings with dignity.

Lacey, for example, explains how he survived his long sentence as a relatively thin man. One of his tips: "Be genuine, respectful, considerate, confident and solid. These qualities will earn you a group of friends who know your physical disadvantage and will not let you fight alone," he says. "Strong guys love to protect their little friends who bring those traits into their lives."

In general, Lacey has little to do with the image of the tough, ruthless prison inmate. He sometimes makes videos about books on philosophical subjects that he read while in prison. His most successful clip shows a surprise visit to the teacher who helped him get his high school diploma in prison. They both hug each other emotionally and Lacey says: "She never judged any of us."

Other former inmates are also open about their time behind bars on the Internet. Florida's Tayler Arrington was serving a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery. 1.6 million people follow her on TikTok. She went viral a year ago with a video explaining how women in prison manage their periods: "There are no tampons in prison, you have to make your own." Another former inmate, Jessica Kent (1.3 million followers), got a lot of clicks for her account of giving birth in prison.

For the ex-prisoners, the social media channels are often an opportunity to gain a voice after they have been separated from the rest of society for a long time. They want to raise awareness about life in prison, but at the same time, success on platforms like TikTok also means a chance to get back on your feet in life after prison. An opportunity that many employers and the social environment deny former prisoners. "When people think of criminals, they immediately think of the worst people imaginable," says Colin Rea, another prison influencer. "It's a lot more normal than most people think. There shouldn't be any stigma."

It is difficult to determine whether social attitudes towards prisoners are actually changing as a result of the TikTok videos. But the fascination of the users of the app is great. Sometimes even criminals who are still in prison post videos from prison. Recently, an Idaho inmate went viral on the platform for searching for pen pals via TikTok clip. However, after a few posts, these accounts often ebb: smartphones are strictly forbidden in prison.

Sources: "The Marshall Project" / "Comrade Sinque" on TikTok / Tayler Arrington on TikTok / Jessica Kent on TikTok / "New York Times" / "Vice"

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