Why Does the Prison-Life Content on TikTok Feel So Familiar?
Cooking, life advice, bored dancing, workout tips — on social media, you’re reminded that incarceration is a pretty common slice of American life.
By Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
July 27, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
In a recent video on TikTok, a suburban-looking mom called Marci Marie walks into a suburban-looking kitchen. She has bleached-blond hair, a kind smile, sparkling eyes and a warm Texan accent. “Hey y’all,” she says. “Today I want to show you guys how we made pizza in the penitentiary.” She produces a bowl and begins. “The trickiest part,” she says, “is getting your sauce right.” She starts with ketchup as a base, adds a little V8 juice and then thickens the mix with crushed potato chips. “Guys, the seasoning is the key,” she says, adding garlic powder and minced onion. Next comes the dough, made by shredding slices of white bread into a potato-chip bag and tipping in a little water. She works the bag with her hands, then unfurls it and pats the dough into a flat circle.
“Now I’m going to show you how we fry that up with a hair dryer,” she says. The images fast-forward as she cuts vents in the side of a paper grocery bag, slides the crust in, clips the bottom and inserts the hair dryer into a hole. She flips it on, and the bag inflates, becoming an ingeniously improvised air fryer. “You’re going to want to fry that for about 10 minutes,” she says. Later she tops the crust with the sauce, cheese, Spam and summer sausage, then returns it to the bag for another 20 minutes. “I haven’t had prison pizza in a year and half,” she says, cutting up the dish with a plastic key card. “Looks like it turned out pretty great!”
Marci Marie, perky and ebullient and ready to laugh at the odd compromises of prison cooking, takes the edge off what could be a mildly depressing variety of video. She has filmed herself cooking numerous prison dishes — Coffee Balls, Cookie Rolls, Tater Tots, Chicken Nachos, Taffy, Prison Parfait — beginning each video much like any other TikTok home-cooking instructional: “Let’s make. … ” And she insists on authenticity, often preparing the dishes with the exact ingredients available “on commissary” (sandwich cookies, instant coffee, mashed-potato flakes, powdered creamer, Coke) in the exact style she used while incarcerated, hair dryers and all. Each video is like a viral “kitchen hack,” only one the creator finds a little funny and sad and does not especially recommend.
Others on the platform post similar videos. One demonstrates how to make a Prison Potato Log, which is like a giant tamale; another prepares a Prison Wrap, which is similar. There are even numerous cooking videos made by people who are still incarcerated: dishes cooked using methods that may or may not be prison-legal, the process recorded on phones that most likely aren’t. (You can watch clips that appear to show people deep-frying empanadas in a can, cooking eggs in a plastic bag or grilling wraps on a metal bunk.) The videos tend to be upbeat, and they’re often tinged with nostalgia. Marci Marie, for instance, says the Cookie Rolls were a special treat, made when someone had something to celebrate.
The cooking is but a subset of the TikTok content made by formerly (and currently) incarcerated people. Some dedicate themselves to facing the camera and earnestly educating viewers about prison life, telling stories and answering questions. Marci Marie has answered many, including “Is it safe to make friends in prison?” (yes), and responded to a message about how to iron clothes (soak in water, press with a cup or hot-pot lid, dry under your bed). Others describe the day of their release or how holidays were celebrated or the best form for burpees. The more you explore the prison-life content on TikTok, the more it seems to mirror all the popular genres of the platform — cooking, life advice, bored dancing, workout tips — until life on the inside ceases to seem quite so distinct from life on the outside.
America has no shortage of narratives about prison life, stretching from century-old memoirs and novels to recent film and television. But in recent decades, most of these depictions have centered on the most shocking aspects of higher-security prisons. Reality and documentary shows — National Geographic’s “Lockdown,” MSNBC’s “Lockup,” A&E’s “Behind Bars,” Netflix’s “I Am a Killer” — focus often or exclusively on the worst, most dangerous facilities, highlighting escapes and riots and intense conflicts. Television dramas like “Oz” and “Prison Break” have done the same. America’s incarcerated population surged in the 1980s and ’90s, but it wasn’t until the 2013 arrival of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” that television had any extended depiction of daily life in a minimum-security prison.
This focus on extreme conditions surely distorts our perception of prison life. We’re shown hostile, alien and debased environments (“A different world” with “its own rules,” as the intro to an episode of “Behind Bars” has it) filled with violent, dangerous people (“killers, robbers and rapists,” per the intro to an episode of “Lockdown”). These terrifying conditions are undoubtedly real, both in the prisons being documented and in other ones. But when it comes to the system as a whole, and life within it, they may not be wholly representative. The United States incarcerates people at a strikingly high rate — more, by most estimates, than any other nation on the planet. A majority of the 1.2 million people in our prisons are serving shorter sentences in lower-security facilities, often for nonviolent crimes. Their daily experiences, even the grim ones, tend to go unremarked on in prison dramas, which pass over the grind of imprisonment — the glitchy, expensive video calls; the inedible food; the painful hours in solitary confinement — for a swirl of murder plots, escape plans and sexual violence.
But digital media excels at capturing the everyday, and this is the reality you can glimpse via all the online content made by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. It’s not just the numerous accounts on TikTok: There is also, today, a podcast called “Ear Hustle,” recorded partly from inside San Quentin Prison, in addition to the inmate-run San Quentin News, available online. Often this media depicts the terrifying human rights disaster we might have come to expect. But even when it does, we may also get to see the picture that sits beside that drama — friendships, boredom, triumphs, pranks, improvised desserts. Far from making prison seem like a fun or tolerable place, these images accomplish something quietly disturbing: In them, prison stops being a violent abstraction and becomes a place you could far more easily imagine yourself, or someone you care about, being unfortunate enough to end up.
The best TikTok videos about prison life feel oddly like the best travel shows; when they’re successful, they show you life elsewhere in a way that makes the subjects stop feeling like vague caricatures and become easier to relate to. As with so many travel shows, Marci Marie’s means of making this connection is food. She doesn’t sensationalize her experience in prison; neither does she flatten it or package it neatly. Her demeanor is that of someone who assumes that her audience is interested in the details of how food was prepared in prison, not because it is crazy but because it is, for a great many people, normal. There is no lesson beyond the fact that life goes on in prison — and that, for all its surprises, is a slice of American life that often goes unexamined and unexpressed. It is a dark spot in our collective understanding of our own society, coming further into the light.
Source photographs: Screengrabs from TikTok
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a freelance writer in New York who covers work, economic life and culture.