TikTok / WIRED
Jerome Combs was 13 years into a life sentence when he went viral on TikTok. After managing to get his hands on a contraband smartphone, he swiftly downloaded the app, and began uploading clips of himself cooking from his cell in California.
In the videos, Combs offers a step-by-step tutorial on how to make burritos, tacos and an elaborate cake, using only pre-packaged items from the prison’s canteen and vendors. In another TikTok, he explains how he created a makeshift grill using a hot plate positioned underneath his metal bunk-bed, which acts as the surface to cook from.
The videos started to gain traction on TikTok “almost immediately”, Combs claims. Since launching earlier this year, his account @jmoneytheprince has amassed almost three million ‘likes’. “My momma always knew I was talented,” he says, “but now, it’s for the world to see.”
His success is partly owed to TikTok’s ‘For You’ page, which is a mixture of trending clips and recommendations, rather than just videos from people users are already subscribed to, making it easier than other platforms to grow a following.
Combs isn’t the only inmate finding fame on the app. ‘Prison TikTok’ is offering an unadulterated glimpse into life behind bars, and showing audiences, “something different,” as Combs puts it. “A lot of people think we’re in here fighting all day.”
Many videos deploy the typical TikTok dance skit format, while others are gaining traction just for documenting ordinary prison scenes. Prison TikToker @Yandy007, AKA Yandy, uploads clips of himself and fellow inmates getting tattoos, paying a visit to the ‘prison barber’ and powering a phone from a cell with a DIY charger. When it comes to blowing off steam, Yandy will make it rain with Monopoly money for the camera, or prepare litres of Coca Cola and Fanta – a concoction he calls ‘prison wine’.
In all of Yandy’s videos, inmates wear masks in their living quarters; a salient reminder of how dramatically life has changed since the pandemic. With social distancing virtually impossible in prisons, inmates are largely confined to their cells. Jerome and Yandy claim the restrictions on their freedom are what led them to TikTok for some much-needed entertainment.
And, of course, the videos provide viral fodder for others stuck in lockdown. “For y’all it’s amazing, because you’re not in this atmosphere,” says Combs. While most people aren’t used to seeing inmates posting online, smartphones are, in fact, far more common in prisons than people might think, with the number of inmates with social media accounts surging.
Phones are smuggled into prisons in myriad ways, among them corrupt staff, drones, or simply being thrown over the walls. According to Combs, guards are aware of contraband phones in the prison, but many choose to turn a blind eye, because “they know it’s going to make their job easier.” Inmates might avoid bad behaviour, he says, because it could result in having their phone taken away. Weedop – a TikTok user making videos from his cell in Alabama – claims that “some of the officers told me they’ve seen my videos, and that they like them.”
Others have faced harsher consequences. Yandy, who is currently serving 13 years in a US prison for a drug offence, says being caught with a phone has in the past resulted in its confiscation, and being sent to solitary confinement, or ‘SHU’ (which stands for Security Housing Unit). But this hasn’t stopped him getting a replacement device. “When you’re in here for so long, you start to lose fear,” Yandy explains. When asked what his family makes of his newfound TikTok fame, he admits that they don’t like it. “They don’t want me to go to the SHU,” he says.
Chris Atkins, author of A Bit of a Stretch, a memoir covering his time as an inmate at HMP Wandsworth in London, says phones were ubiquitous in prison. “There might as well have been a Phones4U pop-up by the lunch queue,” he quips. But it was posting on social media that usually led to severe punishment because it would “embarrass” the prison by revealing a lack of control. Combs confirms this, saying: “I had to take time off because I got too much attention. The guards made me stop posting on TikTok.”
According to Atkins, guards do not want the public to see just how “appalling” conditions are in prison. “Photos and videos have emerged in the past of it looking like an 18th century sewer.” Yandy says people watching his videos are often shocked to see the inside of prison, from the unappetising canteen food, to the cramped-in bunk beds, which prompted one TikTok user to comment: “What summer camp is this?”
Along with creating greater transparency when it comes to what goes on behind bars, Prison TikTok is humanising inmates. “Society sees prisoners as an ‘other’. They don’t have a voice or a face, they’re just a stat in a newspaper,” says Atkins. For Combs, having the platform to reach others through TikTok has been life-altering. “People say to me ‘we love you’, ‘keep inspiring us’. I’ve never had that before. It makes me feel like a role model.”
Combs, who was convicted of first-degree murder at the age of 18, is hoping his success on the platform, and the momentum behind Black Lives Matter, will help him to clear his name. His fans on TikTok have been donating money to help with his legal funds, often commenting with the hashtag #FreeJMoney (a reference to Jerome’s moniker). “I want to make other types of videos telling my story,” he says. “But people, they love the cooking!”
Chandra Bozelko, a former inmate and criminal justice columnist, believes that TikTok has the potential to benefit inmates like Combs in their rehabilitation. “Planning and executing a TikTok video shows an enterprise and ingenuity that prison is designed to squash,” she says. Bozelko adds that these are “really valuable skills” for the prison population, ones gained more so through TikTok than other platforms.
This isn’t to say that TikTok is welcoming prison content. Yandy claims his videos are frequently deleted from the app, and fears the same will soon happen to his entire account. Bozelko suspects this could be down to some states having laws specifically prohibiting inmates from having social media accounts, or discrimination against inmates coming from individual moderators.
Of course, the more nefarious uses of social media are still a real cause of concern. In the past, inmates have been known to intimidate witnesses and organise criminal activity from the safety of a prison cell. Criminologists have warned that offenders’ rehabilitation is undermined by an unfettered use of social media, essentially trapping them in the cycle of crime.
But, as Atkins points out, “they’re all doing it anyway. So, we might as well legitimise it.” He adds that giving inmates access to monitored social media use would help to cut the market for illicit phones. Bozelko says that “any social media use would have to be moderated”, and that inmates should receive technical lessons, so they know how to use the platforms, and online “etiquette classes” as part of their rehabilitation.
At a moment when questions over mass incarceration are increasingly entering mainstream discourse, Prison TikTok could have a transformative effect on how society views prisoners. Fleeting dance routines won’t solve the criminal justice system alone, but TikTok could finally give inmates a platform on which to be heard.
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