Why TikTokers are writing to prisoners

And why you might want to think twice before doing it for clout.

by Kate Fowler
04 August 2020, 1:00pm

TikTok is no stranger to politics — whether it’s current rumours of it being banned in the US, videos encouraging safe protesting for BLM activists, or that time teens on TikTok apparently bought out Trump's rally**.** As the app has exploded in lockdown popularity, the platform has become a space for discourse on current events and society just as much as it is somewhere to learn fun dances or look at memes. Against that backdrop, it’s unsurprising — well, maybe a little surprising — that the US prison system is the latest topic to take over everyone’s FYP. The conversation comes in the form of writeaprisoner.com: a site that connects inmates in the US prison system with pen pals in the wider world. People can choose to send mail via post or the US prison email service, JPay.

While the site itself has been around since 2000, like every other noughties invention, it’s being rediscovered by TikTok now. The #writeaprisoner hashtag has over 65 million views at the time of writing, with TikTokers documenting their own experiences on the site and even introducing their pen pals to their viewers.

For a lot of young people, Write A Prisoner TikTok is the first time they’re seeing prisoners beyond the lens of reality TV or Louis Theroux documentaries. When Sean found himself stumped on TikTok ideas, the film grad went back to an idea he’d been sitting on since high school: writing to a prisoner. His ongoing five-video-long TikTok series about his prison pen pal Doug currently has a collective 23 million views. The snappy clips document his experience using writeaprisoner.com and chart a growing, genuine friendship between the pair. Doug’s cellmate Corey has even made contact too.

“I wrote to him like ‘if you want me to delete the videos I will, I didn’t think it would be this big’ and he wrote back like ‘don’t worry about it, I think it’s awesome’” recounts Sean. “Him and Corey basically said ‘we’re willing to do anything to see you blow up on TikTok, we want to see you succeed.’” It’s the 2020 version of ‘do it for the vine’.

Jessica, however, began writing to prisoners way before she thought to put it on TikTok; and in fact she initially refrained from posting it due to fear of backlash on the app. Now, her TikToks have over 3 million likes and they show a whole other side to writing to prisoners, one more Educating Essex than TLC’s Love after Lockup. As a university student with plans to enrol on a prison education program, Jessica uses the site to contact inmates furthering their education, and even helps with college applications and parole letters: “I feel it’s important to show this side on my TikToks. Supporting prison education is one way to support successful rehabilitation and reintegration,” she says. “I like to stress the importance of proper rehabilitation.”

A 2015 study revealed that prison pen pal schemes aid rehabilitation by making prisoners feel less isolated and raising hope for life beyond their sentence. These TikToks have had similar effects on those in them: “The support he gets from my videos seem to have turned everything around for him,” says Jessica about Sebastian, one of her pen pals who sends video messages answering questions from her comments which she then uploads. “Before TikTok he felt as though he was forgotten, but now all of that has changed.”

Sean has found this too. “I sent [Doug] all the comments and he wrote back that he and his cellmate are super excited to see them,” he says. “They’re making them laugh. Doug actually wrote to me and said that a lot of the prisoners that he knows are grateful to me because I’m giving that website a lot of attention, and they are all on it.” In one video Sean even explains that Doug received an influx of letters after being shown in the viral videos.

The TikToks do more than just give the site a bit of attention: Write A Prisoner’s President Adam Lovell reported that they see a 200-300% increase in traffic and new users every time they get a spike from a viral TikTok.

Emily, who first discovered the site from TikTok, has daily emails with her pen pal-turned-partner Julian, and they speak on the phone every other day, calls which, she emphasises, he spends his own money on. Emily’s first video on her pen pal went viral within an hour, becoming so popular it actually caused writeaprisoner.com to crash briefly from people signing up. “I can only imagine how many inmates received a message from someone just messing around and never actually heard from them again,” the content creator reflects.

That’s where the darker side of this trend begins. Adam explains: “We would rather people never write inmates based on a whim. It’s often a real commitment. We just want to make sure people are writing inmates for the right reasons.” The fear is people will write to an inmate just to see if they will get a reply, and never bother again. We all know how shit it feels to be left on read, but what makes it easier is getting out of the house (and our own heads), finding something else to focus on. In prison, those opportunities are obviously harder to come by. “I’ve seen videos of young girls making videos of them contacting an inmate with Britney Spears singing ‘mama i’m in love with a criminal’ in the background. Those are the people whose intentions aren’t genuine,” says Emily.

And it’s not just the prisoners themselves that can be harmed by exploiting the ‘trend’ for TikTok clout. Jessica expresses her concern that people will go into this experience without proper research into the risks. She reveals one pen pal told her about an attractive prisoner receiving so many messages from TikTok that he began selling on the info to other inmates, priced at $50 for each girl. “It’s really important for other users to do their research first and think heavily on the matter,” she says.

The site, for its part, does try to safeguard against this kind of exploitation, banning under 18s from signing up, for instance. But with TikTok emerging as the digital stomping ground of so many under 18s in 2020, this is where things further enter a grey area, and why it’s so important for TikTokers to highlight the risks, and educate pen pals in their videos.

From the perspective of someone who really knows the US prison system, the explosion in TikTok popularity is complex. Wanda Bertram from Prison Policy Initiative thinks that there’s a few different sides to the videos and draws on the intent of them: “The purpose of amplifying these people’s voices should be to advance social justice, not to amplify someone’s brand.”

“Anybody that is taking the time to correspond with someone in prison should also be giving their time to thinking about our system of mass incarceration and linking up with advocates in their communities to push back against this system,” she explains. The effects of mass incarceration are even clear to see in the TikToks. With the US having the highest rate of prisoners per capita in the world, there’s a reason there are so many pen pals to choose from.

Wanda is concerned too about JPay, the private company that allows pen pals to pay to contact prisoners. The states which provide JPay in federal prisons can sometimes take a commission, but refuse to cover the costs to send messages, leading to an ethical grey area when it comes to exploitation. “Everybody who is using JPay to communicate with someone inside should be potentially amplifying through their platforms the way that these companies take a lot of money from poorer families trying to keep in touch with their loved ones inside,” the advocate explains.

However, Wanda also acknowledges that not every interaction with someone serving time has to be a direct fight for change. Humanising prisoners on a public platform is, in itself, helping the fight for change. “Simply showing the fact that people in prison are human beings can help to chip away at some of the really harmful stereotypes about people in prison,” she says.

“Many incarcerated people made mistakes that they are paying for, but they still deserve a second chance and the resources for successful rehabilitation. I think using TikTok to demonstrate this has been beneficial for the inmates,” summarises Jessica. “My TikToks have changed Sebastian’s outlook on life.”

TikTok has an ability to make real change in the lives of inmates and ultimately help them to return to becoming positive members of society, but only if it’s done right and with the right intentions. Sure, the videos make it look fun but in reality it’s way more than just those 15-60 seconds. So Alexa, don’t play Britney Spears — “Criminal”.